Saturday, December 10, 2005 

Asda continues the inexorable rise of the multinationals.

Another step towards high streets which look exactly the same wherever you are:

Supermarket chain Asda is to challenge Tesco's mounting dominance with a new chain of discount food stores across the country. Britain's second biggest grocery chain, which is part of the US Wal-Mart empire, will announce plans for hundreds of the new-look stores next week.

The stores will be a direct challenge to Tesco's Express and Sainsbury's Local convenience stores which have been so successful in recent years.

This intensification of competition in the sector is also likely to reignite the debate over whether the big supermarket chains are changing the face of Britain's high streets - squeezing out small, local operators who are unable to match the buying power of the big chains.

They will be one of a series of initiatives designed to mount a more effective challenge to the dominance of Tesco, which now has a market share of more than 30%. In the past 12 months Asda's trade has stood still. Asda's new outlets have yet to be named, though the first will be opened in Northampton next month. The supermarket group has been developing the concept using the codename "Project Disco".

In size terms, the new stores are likely to average 7,000-10,000 sq ft - slightly larger than Express and Local outlets. Until now Asda has sold food and clothing only from superstores of 80,000 sq ft and larger. The new stores are understood to have been modelled on a successful French chain called Leaderprice.

The aim is to create the cheapest chain of food shops in town, undercutting even discounters such as Aldi and Netto. A source close to Asda said: "Store managers will be given the power to fix prices at a local level in order to ensure Asda is charging the lowest prices in the area."

Asda intends to find high street and retail park locations for the new chain and it is understood that the company is prepared to open some stores next to Tesco outlets in order to mount a direct challenge and lure away Tesco shoppers. The new stores are the first significant initiative from chief executive Andy Bond, who took over at Asda this year.

Asda's Mr Bond and Mr Fitzsimmons are likely to insist their new venture is not a move into convenience stores and will instead label them "community" discount stores.

Although it's tempting to feel that my enemies enemy is my friend, Asda is if possible even worse than Tesco. If Asda intends to fix prices so that they are lower than anywhere else, many of those in the supply chain are going to suffer. Also going to suffer are the local competitors, who don't have a chance to compete with such prices. The only "winner" is the consumer, who as always is the one who matters.

The corporate takeover of Britain is almost entirely complete. Unless something is done soon, the only "choice" we are going to have is between the likes of Tesco and Asda, both predatory firms with dubious human rights records, who keep huge amounts of information on the customer which they sell on for huge amounts of money. While you have big brother watching you on CCTV, you have big brother happily sitting in your wallet as your "Clubcard". Most of all, Tesco and Asda don't care about the implications on the towns which they move in on, as traditional jobs are lost as well as the character and individuality of the town. They claim that they are creating jobs, when they are simply just employing either feckless teenagers or re-employing those who have lost their jobs as a result of the superstore.

It's not too late. The best way to say no to such companies is to use the local shops which do remain; you might be surprised that they are actually cheaper and have better quality produce. Support local farmers markets or services such as organic box deliveries. Fair trade shops are also increasingly springing up. And if you must shop at Tesco or Asda or similar, don't use a "loyalty" card. The less information they have on you, the better.

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Friday, December 09, 2005 

Charges possible over De Menezes; Air Marshals knew man was mentally ill.

One day, two reports on men wrongfully shot:

The chair of the commission investigating the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes today said it was "likely" its findings would be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Mr De Menezes, a Brazilian national, was shot seven times in the head by armed police officers at Stockwell underground station, in south London, who thought he was a suicide bomber.

The handing over of the report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission could lead to criminal charges being brought against the officers.

Asked whether the report would be handed over, Nick Hardwick, the IPCC chair, said: "I think that is likely."

Charges are brought against officers when the IPCC submits a report to the CPS and the prosecution service decides there is a case to pursue.

Mr Hardwick said the IPCC had to decide whether its findings indicated criminal offences might have taken place. The CPS would then have to decide whether to bring charges against any of the Scotland Yard officers involved.

Mr Hardwick quashed rumours that some of the CCTV tapes from the platform where the shooting happened were missing. However, he refused to say whether one or more of the cameras had not been working properly on the day of the shooting.

The senior investigator, John Cummins, admitted to "problems with the equipment" but did not elaborate.

It is not known which offences the IPCC would ask the CPS to consider if the report were handed over.

The IPCC chair also revealed that the investigators had not interviewed Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner. He refused to confirm whether a statement had been taken from him.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: "It is inexplicable that Sir Ian Blair has not been interviewed. The public expect a full and thorough investigation in a case like this, and it would be no reflection on Sir Ian to be interviewed.

"There is a fine balance to be struck between protecting the safety of the public, operational priorities of the police and natural justice. The public expect no stone to be left unturned in this inquiry.

"The last thing anyone wants is to encourage conspiracy theories about a cover-up."

Mr Hardwick admitted the delay in the IPCC taking over the investigation had been damaging to the public's perception of the inquiry. It did not begin its investigation until Wednesday July 27 - five days after Mr De Menezes was shot dead. Sir Ian Blair had written to the Home Office to clarify the role of the IPCC when the matter related to an ongoing anti-terrorism investigation.

Mr Hardwick refused to comment on whether Sir Ian had tried to delay the IPCC's involvement.

In other words, it seems like the officers on the ground are likely to be those charged, and not the higher-ups who authorised the use of the shoot-to-kill policy. It should also be interesting to see if Cressida Dick is charged, as she is allegedly the officer who told the officers to use lethal force.

The IPCC itself still seems to be having problems with admitting to things that have gone wrong: it is still denying that the tapes from the Stockwell tube station were missing, or found to be blank, while those in charge of the CCTV system said everything had been working fine. Also bewildering is the admittance that Sir Ian Blair has not been interviewed, as well as refusing to say if they had a statement from him. Ian Blair said on the day that all signs pointed to the man being involved in terrorist or suspicious activity, while it was already apparent if not confirmed to those at Stockwell that something had gone terribly wrong. He told the News of the Screws that he did not know that an innocent man had been shot until the next day; either he is lying or those below him felt it wasn't necessary to inform the head of the Met that his officers had executed an innocent man. He also did nothing to stop or correct the misinformation fed to the media about de Menezes wearing a bulky jacket when he was wearing a light denim one, about him having what looked like a weapon belt when he had nothing of the sort, and of him running and jumping the entrance to the tube station, when that was in fact those pursuing him.

It seems unlikely that the IPCC report will really get to the bottom of the matter. Was de Menezes targetted because he came from somewhere under suspicion, or because it was felt that he would be a nice example to the media of the police taking action against "terrorists"? Were the officers who attempted to identify him merely incompetent, or was something more sinister afoot? If he was so dangerous, why was he allowed to board and leave the bus which took him to Stockwell, let alone even reach the station? Why was he not at any time given a warning, or told to stop? Why, when he was clearly be restrained by the police on the train itself was he then shot 8 times? Was this all bad communication, or some kind of revenge on someone they thought they could get away with killing? Those are the real questions which need to be answered, and it seems unlikely the IPCC report will answer all of them. Once the leaking to ITV had originally taken place, an independent inquiry should have taken place. It may now be too late to find out what really happened.

In the other case of shooting to kill, this time in America, it now turns out that the air marshals had known that the man was mentally ill:

The wife of a passenger shot dead after apparently claiming he was carrying a bomb on a plane desperately tried to tell air marshals her husband was mentally ill and had not taken his medication before they opened fire, killing him.

Passengers on board the American Airlines jetliner at Miami airport described seeing Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, run from his seat and down the aisle with his screaming wife and an undercover air marshal wearing a Hawaiian shirt in close pursuit.

"She was chasing after him," Alan Tirpak, another passenger on board, told CNN. "She was just saying her husband was sick, her husband was sick." After following him part of the way down the aisle the woman returned to her seat saying she needed to get his bags. "She just kept saying the same thing over and over, and that's when we heard the shots."

James Bauer, the agent in charge of the Federal Air Marshal Service field office in Miami, said that before Mr Alpizar ran off the plane he had "uttered threatening words that included a sentence to the effect that he had a bomb".

But several passengers, including Mike Beshears, said they did not hear Mr Alpizar say anything. "He just was in a hurry and exited the plane," he said.

Ellen Sutliff, who was sitting near Mr Alpizar, told CNN he had appeared agitated even before he boarded the plane, and that his wife, Anne, kept trying to reassure him: "We just have to get through customs ... We're going to be home soon, and everything will be all right."

Asked about the apparent discrepancy in the accounts between passengers and the air marshals, an official at the Department of Homeland Security told the Guardian that every passenger on board the plane would be interviewed. "We have to wait for the investigation, but there may be situations where what they heard would depend on where they were sitting. But the air marshals have confirmed to us that they overheard him say he had a bomb in his bag," he said.

While this case doesn't have the sinister overtones that the de Menezes case has, it still has the main background of trigger happy attendants who have been trained to shoot before asking questions. And again, the result has been that an innocent vulnerable man has lost his life as result of the panic and hysteria surrounding "terrorism".

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Sun-watch: Page 3 lesbian love masquerading as news.

Just what exactly is going on over in Wapping? Has Murdoch finally decided to abandon any of the remaining news principles of the Sun and turn it into a Daily Sport-clone? Or are they just attempting to take the Zoo/Nuts route of having two naked girls pretending to be lesbians for male titillation, as after all, December is always a slow news month....

The first revelation that Becky Rule and Melanie Boorman had fallen for each other was in yesterday's Sun:

PAGE 3 stunners Becky Rule and Melanie Boorman have something to tell their millions of male fans today: They are in love — with each other.

The gorgeous pair are the first in Page 3’s 35-year history to fall for another topless babe.

They sealed their blossoming romance during a recent Sun photoshoot on Majorca.

And can you guess what else they are going to do now?

And from now on, they will appear TOGETHER on Britain’s favourite glamour page.

Well, would you believe it? Today though the Sun went even further and published their account of their first night of passion:

LOVESTRUCK Page 3 beauties Becky Rule and Melanie Boorman have lifted the lid on their first night of lesbian lust with each other.

The busty pair got it on during a baking hot night in Majorca.

They shared a hotel room on the Spanish island during a Page 3 modelling job with four other babes.

But it took a few glasses of wine before the pair — who first met just two weeks before — finally plucked up the courage to reveal their true feelings.

Becky, 24, said: “All us Page 3 girls went for a meal on the second night of the trip. Mel and I spent the whole time flirting. She kept telling me I was her perfect woman.

“When we got back to our hotel she threw off her clothes before diving naked into the swimming pool.

“I was so excited — I just stripped and jumped in after her.”

The girls then chatted naked in a Jacuzzi with two other Page 3 babes — before Becky and Mel collapsed into bed.

Mel, 23, said: “We pushed our beds together and shared our first kiss. Then we spent the night together. It was sensual, erotic, beautiful and fun.”

Becky added: “When we got back to our hotel room after flirting in the Jacuzzi we took one look at each other and pushed our single beds together. That was when I knew for sure we both wanted to make love to each other.

“Both of us were topless and we jumped under the sheets to kiss and cuddle. But then I just couldn’t keep my hands off Mel.

“I kissed and stroked her breasts and she ran her fingers up and down my back. Then I slowly teased off her g-string and kissed her all over her body.

“Both of us were just so hot for each other. I felt like I was going to explode with desire.”

Mel, a former secretary, added: “What started off as a cuddle became much more. We just wanted each other badly.

“Our first night as lovers was perfect. I just couldn’t get enough of Becky.

“When we woke up the following morning I turned to her and said, ‘Let’s just stay in bed all day and only get up to order pizza.’ I was so happy.”

But the girls’ budding relationship took a turn — as Mel worried what her 27-year-old boyfriend would think about her new love.

She said: “Blokes always say that girl-on-girl action is their fantasy — but when it involves their girlfriend they’re not always so keen.

“I didn’t want him to think I had cheated on him and so told him about my feelings for Becky straight away.

“It was tough to begin with — but he has now accepted our relationship.

“I’m so lucky that my man understands how special she is to me.”

The two beauties had secretly fancied each other since first meeting on a photoshoot for a men’s mag.

Brunette Mel, of Morecambe, Lancs, said: “I remember the first time I laid eyes on Becky like it was yesterday.

“She had the most amazing breasts — just like a Fifties pin-up girl.

“I thought, ‘I’ve met a modern Marilyn Monroe’ and just couldn’t wait to talk to her.

“Becky was so much fun — she was flirty and outrageous.

“We chatted about boyfriend problems and laughed non-stop.”

For blonde Becky, Mel’s crystal-blue eyes and perfect rear left her spellbound.

Although she hasn’t given up on finding the perfect fella, she said: “I like girls with dark hair and blue eyes — and Mel has both. She looked like a goddess.

“But beneath that innocent look I thought there could be a cheeky minx trying to get out.

“And I couldn’t keep my eyes off her bum. It was perfect.”

The girls, who from now on will appear TOGETHER on Page 3, have both slept with women before — but there is not a shred of jealously between them.

Becky, from West London, said: “When you’re with the right woman everything falls into place.

“I slept with my best female friend on my 20th birthday and it was a good experience. You can have a real laugh with girls.”

The lusty babes — both firm favourites with our readers — have plenty in common away from the bedroom.

They love rock bands Led Zeppelin, The Stone Roses and The Cure.

And they would choose gangster films as their choice for a cosy video night in.

Becky said: “We brought out the best in each other from the start.

“Mel is so classy — she likes visiting her parents in France, skiing and going on country walks.

“I like being wined and dined but have a real bad-girl streak that makes me behave like a little devil.

“We fitted together perfectly.”

So let's do a run-down for male fantasies: 2 page 3 girls kindly let us into nearly every detail of what they supposedly did; they stayed in bed all day and ordered pizza; they sleep with men as well; they love Led Zep, Stone Roses and the Cure, which should probably cover nearly every man's music taste in some way AND they enjoy gangster films. Phew!

I'm not sure it's the first time that the Sun has had a page 3 girl who has become/was a lesbian originally, as I remember that arguably the most famous page 3 girl, Samantha Fox, was/or still is living with a same-sex lover. Also of note is the way that a Page 3 girl named Rebekah Parmar Teasdale was kicked out into the cold after it was uncovered that she had done harder glamour shoots before she was recruited for Page 3, including shoots involving other girls. Interestingly, she was brought back for one day only on the arrival of the Ginger Ninja as editor, so that page 3 girl could hilariously be called "Rebekah".

Even for the Sun though this marks a further turn down-market. What Rupert Murdoch describes as a "major contribution to world class journalism" seems to be getting so desperate that it is resorting to publishing page 3 sex fantasies to increase its sale. While the world has moved on from getting angry about the Sun having topless models on its 3rd page, it's pretty depressing the lengths that the "popular" press in this country is sinking too.

Thanks to Bloggerheads for some of the sources for this, and to my brain for resisting the temptation to link the pictures.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005 

No compromise on torture.

Once again we have the House of Lords to thank for saving this country from a deeply draconian ruling. The Lords today unanimously ruled that "evidence" obtained under torture is inadmissible, where-ever or whoever it was obtained from or by.

The appeal court voted last year that if evidence was obtained under torture by agents of another country with no involvement by the UK, it was usable and there was no obligation by the government to inquire about its origins.

t also means the home secretary, Charles Clarke, must re-examine all cases where evidence from abroad has been obtained by torture.

Commenting on the ruling, Mr Clarke said the government did not condone torture in any way, so the Law Lords' decision was "hypothetical".

"We accept this judgment, which will have no bearing on the government's efforts to combat terrorism: we have always made clear that we do not intend to rely on or present evidence ... which we know or believe to have been obtained by torture," he said.

The detainees, most of whom have been in custody since 2001, were held under Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act, which was passed soon after the September 11 attacks in the US.

With the backing of a coalition of human rights groups, they challenged a ruling by the special immigration appeals committee (SIAC) that the Home Office had "sound material" to back up the decision that they posed a threat to national security.

The panel said all eight cases should be sent back to SIAC to be reconsidered.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the former Lord Chief Justice who headed the panel, said English law had regarded "torture and its fruits" with abhorrence for more than 500 years.

"The principles of the common law, standing alone, in my opinion compel the exclusion of third-party torture evidence as unreliable, unfair, offensive to ordinary standards of humanity and decency and incompatible with the principles which should animate a tribunal seeking to administer justice," he said.

The human rights groups welcomed the announcement. Amnesty International, which led the coalition on the detainees' behalf, said the decision meant the government must reaffirm its ban on torture and evidence obtained by torture.

An Amnesty spokesman said: "This is a momentous decision. The Law Lords' ruling has overturned the tacit belief that torture can be condoned under certain circumstances.

"This ruling shreds any vestige of legality with which the UK government had attempted to defend a completely unlawful and reprehensible policy introduced as part of its counter-terrorism measures."

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group Liberty, said: "This is an incredibly important day, with the Law Lords sending a signal across the democratic world that there is to be no compromise on torture.

"This is also an important message about what distinguishes us from dictators and terrorists. We will not legitimise evidence obtained by torture by using it in our justice system."

Amnesty International is now calling for an end to the deportation of alleged terror suspects to countries where they are at risk of torture.

And that is where the battle now has to be joined. There are no reasons whatsoever for why those who are at the moment detained (including Abu Qatada, who yesterday issued a message pleading for the hostages taken by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade in Iraq to be released), waiting to be deported should be not tried in this country. If they are so dangerous that they are not "conducive to the public good" we need to be told why. The government also needs to explain why they cannot be tried here. If it is because the evidence they have against them is weak, or if because the evidence they have would expose those who obtained it, then they need to admit it. The government also needs to admit whether it cannot try the men here because of the security services refusal to allow phone-tapping evidence to be used in court. Their excuse is that it would expose their measures, despite the fact that similar evidence obtained by other security services is often used in courts in other parts of the world. At the moment the public only has a rough idea of why these men are being detained, if that. Abu Rideh, one of the men believed to be detained, is seriously mentally ill and has been admitted to Broadmoor. Others are said to have suffered nervous breakdowns during their previous imprisonment without trial.

This Labour government has been economical with the truth on many previous occasions, and is using sleight of hand to deny that it condones torture in any way. Blair pleaded yesterday in the Commons that he did not know about the CIA rendition flights which have landed at airports here, despite the security services almost certainly being more than aware of what they were doing. Now that torture evidence has been ruled inadmissible, it's time for the government to admit what it knows about the CIA's kidnapping of numerous individuals across Europe, and explain its real reasons for the planned deportations to Jordan and Algeria. As Shami Chakrabarti said, it is such moral issues and ethics which separate us from the terrorists and dictatorships we are meant to be opposed to.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005 

Space Cadets - In TV land, it seems no one can hear you scream.

Congratulations seem to be in order then to Channel 4 and Endemol (creators of the delightful Big Brother), who have bought adverts for their new show Space Cadets on page 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 in today's Grauniad. No doubt there are similar ads in the other papers. The premise behind Space Cadets is pretty pathetic, and not really anything new. A group of people are going to be told that after applying for a new reality tv show that they are going into near space, and are being taken to a Russian airbase for their training. The twist is that they are not of course going into space, and are in fact being tricked into going through a week or so of pointless experiments and tests. It's the kind of stunt which Jeremy Beadle and Noel Edmonds were doing a decade ago, except not on the same timescale or cost basis. The difference is that while Beadle and Edmonds were just playing tricks or winding up celebrities, similar to what Punk'd does on MTV, this is obviously a lie which is going to be played out over a long length of time in front of a cynical TV audience which following the likes of Big Brother getting evil and watching a daughter of a prime minister eating a kangaroo's penis, wants more and more sensationalism and hysteria. Of course though, this isn't a TV channel making fun of stupid, gullible people for national enjoyment, oh no. Here's how it's being defended by the shows producer:
Several months ago, the channel advertised for "thrill seekers" to take part in a new reality TV show. A hundred applicants were invited to London for an interview before being put through a series of psychological tests to ascertain how suggestible they were.

Although the term space cadet is slang for someone who is distracted from reality, Shirley Jones, the show's executive producer, insisted the contestants were "not stupid people".

"Suggestibility is a psychological term that has no link with intelligence or gullibility. People who have a creative mind tend to be quite suggestible. All the tests we did have been done in conjunction with a psychologist," she said.
That's alright then. While one part of me has very little sympathy for anyone who applies to be on a reality TV show, as they should know full well what they are possibly getting into, the other part thinks of the increasing dangers and long-term damage to their personal psyche as they are effectively humiliated in front of the nation for over a week. This isn't the same as Big Brother, where they can win the game or public affection by either being nice or being nasty, in this they don't have much of a choice. Still, while the show will no doubt make stars of some talentless berks, it can boast that it already has a talentless berk hosting it in Johnny Vaughn. As a lot of reality shows are hit in the ratings due to their terribleness (Celebrity Wrestling, etc) it seems that companies still can't resist commissioning such potentially dangerous tosh. Maybe they ought to take a hint from Channel 4's recent new "quiz", deal or no deal, which is all down to luck and involves genuine tension, all without hurting anybody. Then again, that's not exactly going to excite the front pages of the tabloids, is it?

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We're all going to die!

We haven't had a scare story for oh, a few days at least, so hey, let's bring back an old favourite: doom by asteriod.

In Egyptian myth, Apophis was the ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon that was determined to plunge the world into eternal darkness.

A fitting name, astronomers reasoned, for a menace now hurtling towards Earth from outerspace. Scientists are monitoring the progress of a 390-metre wide asteroid discovered last year that is potentially on a collision course with the planet, and are imploring governments to decide on a strategy for dealing with it.

Nasa has estimated that an impact from Apophis, which has an outside chance of hitting the Earth in 2036, would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere.

And, scientists insist, there is actually very little time left to decide. At a recent meeting of experts in near-Earth objects (NEOs) in London, scientists said it could take decades to design, test and build the required technology to deflect the asteroid. Monica Grady, an expert in meteorites at the Open University, said: "It's a question of when, not if, a near Earth object collides with Earth. Many of the smaller objects break up when they reach the Earth's atmosphere and have no impact. However, a NEO larger than 1km [wide] will collide with Earth every few hundred thousand years and a NEO larger than 6km, which could cause mass extinction, will collide with Earth every hundred million years. We are overdue for a big one."

Apophis had been intermittently tracked since its discovery in June last year but, in December, it started causing serious concern. Projecting the orbit of the asteroid into the future, astronomers had calculated that the odds of it hitting the Earth in 2029 were alarming. As more observations came in, the odds got higher.

Having more than 20 years warning of potential impact might seem plenty of time. But, at last week's meeting, Andrea Carusi, president of the Spaceguard Foundation, said that the time for governments to make decisions on what to do was now, to give scientists time to prepare mitigation missions. At the peak of concern, Apophis asteroid was placed at four out of 10 on the Torino scale - a measure of the threat posed by an NEO where 10 is a certain collision which could cause a global catastrophe. This was the highest of any asteroid in recorded history and it had a 1 in 37 chance of hitting the Earth. The threat of a collision in 2029 was eventually ruled out at the end of last year.

Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer from Queen's University Belfast, said: "When it does pass close to us on April 13 2029, the Earth will deflect it and change its orbit. There's a small possibility that if it passes through a particular point in space, the so-called keyhole, ... the Earth's gravity will change things so that when it comes back around again in 2036, it will collide with us." The chance of Apophis passing through the keyhole, a 600-metre patch of space, is 1 in 5,500 based on current information.

So, if we're not all already dead or dying by 2036, we may well have the privilege of either being wiped out either by the after-effects of the asteriod's connection with Earth, or from the dust which will block out the sun afterwards. Quite frankly, if we're still here in 2036 and we haven't managed to come up with anything to destroy it or knock it off course by then, I personally will be adjusting the infamous poem about Slough to come friendly asteriods and fall on Earth.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005 

Time is running out.

New maps show that the Earth is rapidly running out of fertile land and that food production will soon be unable to keep up with the world's burgeoning population. The maps reveal that more than one third of the world's land is being used to grow crops or graze cattle.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison combined satellite land cover images with agricultural census data from every country in the world to create detailed maps of global land use. Each grid square was 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) across and showed the most prevalent land use in that square, such as forest, grassland or ice.

"In the act of making these maps we are asking: where is the human footprint on the Earth?" said Amato Evan, a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison research team presenting its results this week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The current map shows a snapshot of global land use for the year 2000, but the scientists also have land use data going back to 1700, showing how things have changed.

"The maps show, very strikingly, that a large part of our planet (roughly 40%) is being used for either growing crops or grazing cattle," said Dr Navin Ramankutty, a member of the Wisconsin-Madison team. By comparison, only 7% of the world's land was being used for agriculture in 1700.

The Amazon basin has seen some of the greatest changes in recent times, with huge swaths of the rainforest being felled to grow soya beans.

"One of the major changes we see is the fast expansion of soybeans in Brazil and Argentina, grown for export to China and the EU," said Dr Ramankutty.

This agricultural expansion has come at the expense of tropical forests in both countries.

Meanwhile, intensive farming practices mean that cropland areas have decreased slightly in the US and Europe and the land is being gobbled up by urbanisation.

The research indicates that there is now little room for further agricultural expansion.

"Except for Latin America and Africa, all the places in the world where we could grow crops are already being cultivated. The remaining places are either too cold or too dry to grow crops," said Dr Ramankutty.

It's time that we stopped kidding ourselves. We are living beyond our means. Unless we drastically cut back on what we are doing, then a harsh future may await us, let alone our offspring. As population levels continue to rise, although they are more or less static in the majority of Europe, more and more power is being consumed, our resources are being exploited, and our heritage is being wrecked.

We have to face up to this now. We are may not want to abandon our lifestyles which revolve around the economic orthodoxy of constant growth, its foundation in neo-classical theory, but unless we do then it already may be too late. Global warming is accelerating and looking to have already an even higher bigger effect on the weather than was predicted. We also cannot rule out nuclear power, whatever our feelings about it. At the moment there is no consensus on moving towards a system of true-cost economics, which measures the damage we are doing to the environment and what resources we are using, as well as the improvements to life in general. We can no longer rely on GDP as a measure of how well a society is working. If we are not careful, catastrophe could be here quicker than we imagine.

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Cameron becomes new Tory leader - now he has to prove he is a new Tory.

David Cameron has then rather unsurprisingly become the new Tory leader -- beating David Davis by a margin of over 2 to 1 in a ballot of Conservative party members.

The race for the leadership was itself around as exciting as today's amazing tabloids revelations that Gazza likes a drink. Apart from the smear campaign that Cameron suffered following his conference speech over drugs, the race itself was almost entirely deviod of any serious political positions or policy statements. Instead it focused mostly on their different backgrounds, with Davis covering himself in an England flag as he told his tale of growing up on a council estate. Cameron tried to play down his somewhat privileged background, having attended Eton, and did somewhat succeed, although whether Tory voters cared about that or not is debatable.

Cameron now finds himself at the helm of a party with a 3 time losing streak. The last two of those elections were decided on Labour's economic record and the focus on the Tories still being the nasty and outdated party, focused on Europe and anti-immigrant fervour, with tax cuts which would have devastated the public services announced at the last minute.

Cameron himself, in the few policy moments which were announced or discussed, especially in his two question times appearances, did come across as engaging, charismatic and charming. I personally found myself disagreeing with him mostly, but I still respected his positions. The last person who has been credited with having such an effect on people was Tony Blair in his early years of Labour leadership. Cameron has already got a head-start on the drugs policies, as there is no way he could now came out with a clampdown as his past has been exposed. In fact, his drug policies seem saner than the Labour parties. He was on the committee which recommended that Ecstacy should be downgraded to a Class B drug, as it is undoubtedly nowhere near as dangerous as heroin or crack, and has few addictive qualities. He has promised to move the party towards the centre, making the Tories once again a challenge to Labour, and in the process revitalising democratic debate in a country which has come close to being a one party state under Tony Blair's direction. The defeat on the 90 day terror proposals has ended that, and Cameron should further undermine Blair's already lingering hold on power. The crunch may come with the education proposals to be published and legislated on in the new year.

This is where Cameron has to prove that he is different to the leaders that have gone before him. While Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard have all pledged to return to the centre and be "compassionate", they have instead drifted further and further towards the right, culminating in one of the nastiest and xenophobic election campaigns in years. Cameron has already suggested that he will support measures on which he supports the government, and not give in to knee-jerk opposition. That could well be his first mistake. While he may not want to be associated with helping the Labour left in defeat the government over Education, the facts of the matter are that the Tories want to go even further over Ruth Kelly's deeply flawed white paper. If Cameron is to prove that he really wants power, then he should oppose the government on when he thinks they are wrong, as they are on education at the moment. Whether they wish to go further or not is moot.

Cameron should also not abandon the Tory party's new found love of civil liberties, in opposing the government's draconian terrorism legislation, as well as the deeply hated ID Cards scheme. While there were more than distant murmurings from some backbench Tories over their position on the 90 days possible detention, he should recognise that true conservatism would involve keeping our hard-fought for the freedom, not diluting it and helping those who wish us harm claim victory. Another position that a new Tory leader would be embrace would be green issues and the environment - something that Labour is starting to fail badly on. Surely a conservative party would want to stop the country from being both being completely urbanised, and help improve the dire transport network. A good start would be to announce that the Tories would improve public transport, something which Labour pledged to do but which it has forgotten about. Also equally important would be measures that set out clearly what percentage of emissions the country can emit, and stick to them without buying so-called "credits" from abroad.

Cameron would also do well to listen to Iain Duncan Smith's thinktank, which has focused on helping the inner cities and not on the upper middle class which the party is obsessed with. Unfortunately, Cameron's PR past and his relations with big business show little sign that he will be tough on corporate excesses.

Cameron then is faced with a party that he has to shake into looking forward, while not forgetting the lessons of the past. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen, but politics may once again become something more than Labour announcing what they are going to do and then steam rolling it through parliament.

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Monday, December 05, 2005 

Rice: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Did anyone really expect her to admit to what is becoming more and more obvious by the day though?

The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has defended US treatment of terror suspects and refused to either confirm or deny the existence of CIA-run secret prisons in eastern Europe.

Ms Rice said European countries should trust the US because information gathered by the CIA had "prevented terrorist attacks in Europe ... and other countries".

She added that the US would use "every lawful weapon to defeat these terrorists".

Reading out a statement at Andrews air force base in Maryland before leaving on a trip to Europe, Ms Rice said: "We cannot discuss information that would compromise the success of intelligence, law enforcement, and military operations. We expect other nations share this view."

"The US does not use the air space or airport of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee when we believe he or she will be tortured," she said.

"The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture."

Ms Rice then needs to explain why so many chartered CIA-flights have made numerous stop-offs in countries all over Europe. She needs to explain why these planes stopped where they did, who was on board and where their end destination was. Of course, she already said that can't as she won't discuss anything that could compromise the success of their intelligence.

This "intelligence" led to the kidnapping, sorry, I mean, principled abduction, um regrettably necessary taking of suspected terrorists by the CIA of those who happen to share the same name. This, according to the Washington Post, happened to Khaled Masri, who was taken in Germany and flown to Afghanistan, most likely to Bagram airbase. He was kept in appalling conditions for five months before he was taken back home. Many other similar cases are suspected, as well as those who suspect that numerous innocent men are being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

Maybe we shouldn't be too hard on the woman with an oil tanker named after her. After all, as she also stated in her speech, it's very true that rendition has been practised for decades, since the late 1980s at least. Rendition is also remarkably similar to what Blair and Clarke are planning to do with the former Belmarsh prisoners who were on control orders and are now back in prison awaiting deportation. The difference is the government has attempted to make sure that they won't be tortured back in their home climates of Jordan and Algeria. The reality is that such assurances are worthless and the government is only seeking them so that it is not breaking EU law.

It's also true that our own intelligence agencies are entirely complicit in the actions of the CIA. The security services have visited Guantanamo bay, and have done nothing about the remaining nominally-British suspects that remain there. The government and intelligence services have relied on information given them by the torturers of Uzbekistan, as documented by Craig Murray. The government also well knows about the CIA flights; especially seeing as they have landed at military airbases. Their denials and Straw's comical speaking up, just to be seen as doing something are hypocritical and laughable.

What really may come back to haunt Rice though is her two unequivocal statements that the US does not connive in torture in any way. This is an obviously intelligent woman who has high aspirations, maybe to even being President. Some are certainly grooming her for a run. Why then has she made two statements which may prove the breaking of her? Both are undoubtedly bold faced lies. Dick Cheney himself is trying to alter the law recently passed by Congress which made "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees illegal by having the CIA exempted? What further proof is needed? That the US is using friendly middle-eastern countries to do its dirty work, or prisons in "New Europe" is bad enough. When the truth is right under Ms Rice's nose, and she denies everything in her see no evil style, it really does make you wonder just where all this is heading.

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Sun-watch: Asking the bleeding obvious.

Because they did something silly and stupid, that's why. Not to sound cruel or uncompassionate, but these girls crossed a railway line when the signal was that a train was coming. More than that, it was travelling at 70mph, not at 100 or more as some trains do. They could, and should have seen it. However, as people increasingly look to blame others for their own mistakes, it is the rail authorities and government which increasingly gets it in the neck.

The Guardian covers the story in a less histrionic fashion, and does suggest that the accident could and should have been prevented by a better safety scheme, such as an overpass across the track. It doesn't take away from the facts that the girls still should not have attempted to cross the track, even if the theory that they thought the warnings were for the train they wanted to board is correct or not. The Sun's front page suggests that others are culpable. From a newspaper that considers itself an enemy of political correctness, it is highly hypocritical for it to suggest that the girls' deaths are anyone else's fault. Consider a similar story: someone walks too close to the edge of a cliff, slips and falls down. His family then blame the local authority for not putting up a fence or signs warning of the dangers. Who would you agree with?

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