Wednesday, 30 May 2012

David Nutt suggests alcohol sensors 'in every car'

Under Prof Nutt's proposal, all drivers would have to breath into a device and be within the legal drink drive limit before their car would start

Alcohol sensors should be in every car to cut drink-related road deaths and injuries, says the government's former chief drugs adviser.
David Nutt says motorists would have to breathe into the devices before starting their car, to test they were not over the limit.
Prof Nutt was sacked from his post three years ago after clashing with Labour ministers over drugs policy.
He later set up the independent Scientific Committee on Drugs.
That body ranked alcohol as a more harmful substance than heroin and cocaine.
He also said people in the UK would be less inclined to get drunk if they were able to smoke cannabis at Amsterdam-style "cannabis cafes".
Alcohol suggestions
Prof Nutt, president of the British Neuroscience Association and a professor at Imperial College, London, said Britain was facing a "public health crisis" of "immense proportions" because of a rise in the number of alcohol-related illnesses and deaths.
Although he welcomed plans for minimum unit pricing in England, Wales and Scotland, saying it will have a "big impact" on heavy drinkers, Prof Nutt said much more must be done.
In his new book, "Drugs - Without the Hot Air", he suggests seven ways to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.
They include shorter licensing hours, compelling pubs and supermarkets to sell non-alcoholic lagers and beers alongside alcoholic drinks and devising less dangerous alternatives such as drinks which give people a moderate "buzz".
One of his most controversial suggestions is for the "wider use" of alcohol detectors that won't allow cars to start if the driver's drunk more alcohol than the legal limit.
Prof Nutt told the BBC that some countries used the in-car breathalysers, known as alcohol ignition interlock devices, to ensure that people convicted of drink-driving don't take to the wheel, but he had an even more "radical" idea.
"You could potentially have it so that was true of all cars - everybody would have to breathe in [to the device] before they were able to drive away," he said.
"You hear about terrible accidents when four or five young people die simultaneously in the one car because the driver's been drunk. It could save a lot of lives."
'Worth investigating'
Provisional figures for 2010 show there were 250 drink-related road deaths in England, Wales and Scotland. A further 1,230 people were seriously injured and 8,220 were slightly hurt.
Robert Gifford, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety, gave the idea a cautious welcome, but said it would have to go hand-in-hand with lowering the drink-drive limit from 80 mg/100 ml of blood.
"It's certainly worth investigating," Mr Gifford said.
But the Department for Transport said it had no plans to install in-car breathalysers in cars - or to use them to test drink-driving offenders.
A spokesman said: "These schemes are very difficult to manage because offenders can get round the lock by changing the car they drive. We are also not persuaded as to their effectiveness in changing long-term behaviour.
He added: "We are always willing to consider new initiatives to combat drink driving and of course would consider any new research or technology in this area."
Professor Nutt also re-iterated calls he's made previously for drugs to be decriminalised, saying there should be a system of "regulated access" from pharmacies.
Drug laws
He suggested establishing a network of coffee shops, similar to those which exist in the Netherlands where people can buy small quantities of cannabis for personal use.
"I've spoken to a lot of young people and they would prefer to go out and have a joint than get drunk - but they have no choice. "
He said if cannabis cafes were set up in Britain up to 25 per cent would switch to smoking the drug rather than drinking alcohol, leading to less drunken behaviour and violence.
Prof Nutt is due to give evidence in June to the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into the effectiveness of Britain's drugs policy including the arguments for decriminalisation.
But the Home Office has made clear on a number of occasions that it has no intention of liberalising the drugs laws.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Vegetarian Awareness Week: Meat-Eating Men Considered To Be ‘More Masculine' Than ‘Wimpy' Vegetarians

Vegetarian men are ‘less manly’ than meat-eating males, a recent study has revealed.

According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, men who prefer to nibble a green salad at lunch and tuck into tofu rather than a steak are considered to be less macho than their meat-eating ‘beefcake’ counterparts.
The study investigated the link between the words ‘vegetarian’, ‘meat’ and ‘masculinity’ by examining people’s word associations with certain foods.
Researchers asked participants to rate the masculinity of foods like meat, dairy products and vegetables.
They discovered that the majority of people classed meat (in particular ‘muscle meat’ like steak) as ‘manly’ and used masculine words when associating the food to metaphors.
Quick Poll

Are Vegetarian Men Less 'Macho' Than Meat Eaters?

The study also delved into how people pronounce meat-related words and investigated how ‘manly’ the words sounded. They discovered that ‘meat’ in 23 languages is spoken with a more masculine pronoun than the word ‘vegetable’.
“To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing food.
"Soy is not. To eat it, they would have to give up a food they saw as strong and powerful like themselves for a food they saw as weak and wimpy,” claimed the report.
Researchers believe that if food experts want to make a vegetarian diet appealing to men, they should re-market veggie foods so they resemble meat (for example, soy burgers that look like grilled burgers), as it might help cautious men make the transition. 

"In marketing, understanding the metaphor a consumer might have for a brand could move the art of positioning toward more of a science," add the study authors.
Do these men look 'wimpy' to you?
                                                            Famous Vegetarian Men
These results follow a previous study by the University of British Columbia, which discovered that woman view vegetarian men as less masculine than 'real men' who eat meat.
“Although abstaining from meat is widely established with the symbol of power, status and masculinity, it seems that the vegetarian man is perceived as more principled, but less manly, than his omnivorous counterpart,” explained lead researcher Dr Steven Heine at the time.
Are you a reluctant vegetable eater? Be tempted by these colour-boosting veggies that'll excite your tastebuds...

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Male pill: gene discovery may lead to contraceptive

                                            Healthy sperm manufacture needs the Katnal1 gene

It may be possible to develop a new male contraceptive pill after researchers in Edinburgh identified a gene critical for the production of healthy sperm.
Experiments in mice found that the gene, Katnal1, was vital for the final stages of making sperm.
The authors of s study in PLos Genetics said a drug which interrupts Katnal1 could be a reversible contraceptive.
A fertility expert said there was "certainly a need" for such a drug.
Contraception in men is largely down to condoms or a vasectomy.
Infertility search
Researchers at the Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh were investigating the causes of male infertility.
They randomly altered the genetic code of mice to see which became infertile. They then traced the mutations which led to infertility, which led them to Katnal1.
It contains the blueprints for a protein which is important in cells which support the development of sperm. Without the protein, sperm do not fully form and the body disposes of them.
Scientists hope they will be able to perform a similar trick in humans to stop sperm developing, without causing lasting damage.
One of the researchers Dr Lee Smith said: "If we can find a way to target this gene in the testes, we could potentially develop a non-hormonal contraceptive.
"The important thing is that the effects of such a drug would be reversible because Katnal1 only affects sperm cells in the later stages of development, so it would not hinder the early stages of sperm production and the overall ability to produce sperm.
He said it would be "relatively difficult" to do as the protein lives inside cells, however, he said there was "potential" to find something else that protein worked with, which might be an easier target.
'Holy Grail'
Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, said there was "certainly a need" for a non-hormonal contraceptive for men and that this had been a "Holy Grail" of research for many years.
He added: "The key in developing a non-hormonal contraceptive for men is that the molecular target needs to be very specific for either sperm or other cells in the testicle which are involved in sperm production.
"If they are not, then such a contraceptive could have unwanted side effects on other cells and tissues in the body and may even be dangerous.
"The gene described by the research group in Edinburgh sounds like an exciting new possible target for a new male contraceptive, but it may also shed light on why some men and sub-fertile and why their sperm does not work properly."

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Why long-term fixed rate mortgages are getting cheaper

You don't just get financial security with a long-term fixed rate mortgage - the costs of the deals are falling too!

Brits are traditionally shy of long-term fixed rate mortgages because they require a long-term commitment, and we aren't really used to that when it comes to our mortgages.

That is partly to do with us wanting a degree of flexibility. But it's also because the industry has always offered and promoted short, two-year fixed deals. Indeed these still account for a large proportion of all the mortgages on offer today – 30% according to Defaqto.

But in recent years we have started to fall for the obvious appeal of long-term fixed rates, especially as wider interest rate movements have lowered their cost. After all, it was really only the premium of five-year fixes that put many borrowers off.
So what's changed?

Deeper and down
Mortgage rates in general have fallen over the last three years, as a result of the fall in base rate. But more specifically 'swap rates' - which reflect the cost to lenders of borrowing fixed rate funds - have also fallen. And they impact directly on the cost of fixed rate mortgages, as we explained in How are mortgage rates decided?. This is particularly noticeable with longer-term rates.

According to financial information provider Moneyfacts, the average five-year fixed rate has decreased significantly over the past year, from 5.59% to 4.86% today.

This can be attributed to a fall in five-year swap rates, which have decreased from 2.99% in April 2011 to just 1.7% now.

In fact, average rates for five-year fixed rate mortgages have fallen steadily for the past two years (they were 5.87% in April 2010), and there has been a corresponding increase in interest from borrowers.

For good reason, because in the current market, long-term fixes are looking very appealing indeed.

Benefits of five-year fixes
Cheap as chips: OK, five-year fixes are never going to be the cheapest deals on the market because you expect to pay a premium for five whole years of payment security. But they are probably never going to be available at such a narrow margin to shorter fixed rates or even variable deals. Today's long-term fixes are cheap by historical standards, with best buy five-year rates starting from a staggering 3.59%.

Payment security: Your payrate is set in stone for five years, no matter what happens to interest rates. This means you are protected from rate rises, able to plan your family finances and budget effectively without having one wary eye on the Bank of England and what it will do with the base rate.

No more switching: Fancy the freedom to forget about your mortgage for a while? Let's face it, the mortgage is a necessary evil when you want to buy a home, and it can also be time consuming. If you fix for five years rather than two you completely eliminate an entire remortgage process in 2014, because you are sticking with your rate until 2017. This means you don't have to research the market, fill in any forms, or speak to a bank or broker. Or do anything at all apart from get on with your life.

Save money on fees: Mortgage arrangement fees are shockingly high. According to Moneyfacts the average fee is £1,502, and this has shot up 25% over the last three years. If you lock in for five years you only pay that huge amount once in five years, rather than every two years. And that saving could offset, or even outweigh, any premium in payrate you pay for the longer-term deal.

Who do they suit?
Most borrowers can benefit from locking into a long-term fixed rate. After all, an element of security over your largest monthly outgoing is appealing to many people.

However, it's important to understand that long-term fixes are a long-term commitment, so they are best for those who do not anticipate their lives changing dramatically in the next few years. These often tend to be homeowners who are settled in their family home and don't plan on moving.

The reason for this is that fixed rates apply something called early repayment charges (ERCs) if you try to move before your fixed period is up. These penalties vary but tend to be around 1-3% of your outstanding mortgage balance, so can add up to thousands.

Equally, if you decide to move house you may be liable to pay ERCs, which is why long-term deals are not always suitable for those who are planning to move in the next few years. Many lenders will tell you their mortgages are portable without penalty, and can therefore be moved to a new property, but there are increasing reports about this not always being the case in practice, especially if your circumstances have changed since you initially took out the mortgage.

Finally, it is worth remembering that long-term fixes are currently cheap because there is an expectation that wider interest rates will stay low for longer. In this context, a variable rate would be a cheaper option, but it does come with the potential to rise if the economic experts are wrong.

The only way to set your rate in stone for the long term is to fix it. Below are some of the best deals around for those who want to fix for a minimum of five years.

Big deposit (25% and over)

Small deposit (less than 25%)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

What the Queen's Speech means for you

The Queen wasn't overly taxed in her speech today, with the whole lot over and done with in 15 minutes. There has been plenty of talk about what wasn't in the speech - the delay in long term care reform, and watered down reform of the Lords.

However, in those few minutes, the Queen announced a number of bills which will have direct effect on your pocket. So what does it mean for you?

Banking Reform Bill

This is the legislation that will implement the commission's recommendations to separate retail banks from their riskier investment banking divisions. The response has been positive. Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd says:"We are pleased that the Government is moving to introduce ring-fencing of retail banking. People can't afford to lose money on bailouts and want their savings to be protected from risky investment banking. The Bill should set out a clear and urgent timetable for reform and the Government must not allow this to be derailed by bank lobbying."

There will also be other measures designed to protect consumers in the event of disaster, including a new rule that means those with money on deposit will be the first to get their money back if a bank goes under.

On a more day-to-day level, there will be measures to make it easier for customers to switch their account from one bank to another by September 2013. And there's another crowd-pleaser: provisions to strengthen shareholder power when it comes to clamping down on executive pay.

However, there's something in there that could cost us more in the short term. There is likely to be legislation requiring banks to increase their capital reserves - making them more resilient in tough times. The problem is that this requires banks to stockpile cash - which means they won't be in a hurry to kick-start their loans businesses again.

Public Service Pensions Bill

This has already been the source of much debate and unrest, and what we have seen so far is likely to be a drop in the ocean compared to what is coming.

The overall aim of the bill will be to create a common framework for public service pensions, on an affordable level, with public sector staff taking more of the burden of cost. While taxpayers may be broadly in favour of the move, it's fair to say that public sector employees will be up in arms - and that all of us will pay the price through industrial action and strikes.

Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill

This has already been highly controversial. There has been a lot of positive feedback to the plan to cut red tape for businesses and reduce state inspections. Business Secretary Vince Cable argued: "Securing economic growth through business investment and trade is absolutely essential to recovery. Government's plans to cut red tape, boost green investment, reform the competition landscape and reform the banks are vital moves that would help strengthen the business environment and boost consumer and business confidence."

However, the moves to overhaul employment tribunals and make it easier for businesses to hire and fire have been met with a mixed response. There are those who are concerned it will erode employee rights, and lead to more sudden and unexpected unemployment - which can devastate family finances overnight. Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said: "Parents need jobs, not new laws to make it easier to fire people."

The Pensions Bill

This will usher in things that have been talked about for long enough to come as no shock to anyone. The bill will raise the state pension age to 67 between 2026 and 2028. It means anyone under the age of 52 will retire later than they may have initially envisaged. The bill will also contain details of how the government will increase retirement age further as longevity increases. Clearly this will be a financial blow for many. However, it is a blow they have had plenty of warning about.

It will also bring in the new flat rate pension at about £140 a week. The effect this has on you will depend on the pension rights you have already built up, as well as how the new pension is implemented. For those on a higher wage, who have been contracted in, there's a chance the flat rate could be lower than the amount they would be due to receive under the old system. For the lower-paid it will be a lifeline.

Children and Families Bill

There is a lot in this, including rights for fathers on divorce and speeding up adoption. But while the measures on divorce are likely to change the complexion of many divorce and custody battles, they are unlikely to affect their ruinous expense.

The measure that's most likely to have a profound impact will be a new ability for parents to swap 'maternity' leave from work. The short-term impact will depend on who is the higher earner. If this enables a higher-earning woman to return to work, it will boost the family finances. However, if it enables the higher-paid father to take leave, it is going to make an expensive time even harder for families.

The long-term impact, meanwhile, could be more profound. If sharing care becomes the cultural norm, motherhood need not mean a dramatic reduction in a woman's earning capacity, and we could see wages between men and women equalise and the glass ceiling for promotion shattered - or at least dented.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Google gets Nevada driving licence for self-drive car

            Google has been experimenting with driverless Toyota Prius cars in the US

Driverless cars will soon be a reality on the roads of Nevada after the state approved America's first self-driven vehicle licence.
The first to hit the highway will be a Toyota Prius modified by search firm Google, which is leading the way in driverless car technology.
Its first drive included a spin down Las Vegas's famous strip.
Other car companies are also seeking self-driven car licences in Nevada.
The car uses video cameras mounted on the roof, radar sensors and a laser range finder to "see" other traffic.
Engineers at Google have previously tested the car on the streets of California, including crossing San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge.
For those tests, the car remained manned at all times by a trained driver ready to take control if the software failed.
According to software engineer Sebastian Thrun, the car has covered 140,000 miles with no accidents, other than a bump at traffic lights from a car behind.
Human error
Bruce Breslow, director of Nevada's Department of Motor Vehicles, says he believes driverless vehicles are the "cars of the future".
Nevada changed its laws to allow self-driven cars in March. The long-term plan is to license members of the public to drive such cars.
Google's car has been issued with a red licence plate to make it recognisable. The plate features an infinity sign next to the number 001.
Other states, including California, are planning similar changes.
"The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error," said California state Senator Alex Padilla, when he introduced the legislation.
"Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analysing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely."

Saturday, 5 May 2012

London 2012: Olympic Stadium is officially opened

Thousands braved the rain and cold at the Olympic Park in London for the opening

A nine-year-old girl has officially opened the the 2012 Olympics stadium, at a ceremony in east London.
Niamh Clarke-Willis joined Locog head Lord Coe to hit a button which launched balloons into the sky above the venue for this summer's Games.
Around 40,000 members of the public were at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford to witness the opening, which included a laser light show.
The "2,012 hours to go" event tested the park's management and security.
Lord Coe said: "It's a fantastic feeling. The seven years have just flown by. Tonight is only the start of the story.
"We want thousands of young people to be inspired to take up sport. We hope that for a few of them it will be the start of their journey.
"I'm grateful to everyone who came here tonight to celebrate this moment in history."
Spectators had to queue to enter the venue after airport-style security checks.
'Insufficient clothing'
Simon Levy, who came to the Olympic Park for the first time on Saturday, said: "It's not a problem, really. It's much quicker than the airport and it's good to be checked because now we know we're safe."
Police helicopters flew over the park and armed police patrolled the area.
Adrian Casy, a security guard at the Olympic Stadium, said Saturday's events were among the main rehearsals for the games, particularly in moving and managing the crowds of spectators from the park and from one venue to another.
"Honestly, so far, so good, although we're still trying hard to make it run smoother," said Mr Casy, adding that some spectators were wearing "insufficient clothing" to cope with the weather conditions.
Spinning targets
Organisers Locog said young people aged eight to 14 were asked to register for the opportunity to open the stadium during a series of sporting events held at the venue.
The first 100 youngsters who applied were picked to go through to the final round.
Paralympic gold medal-winning archer Danielle Brrown will shoot arrows at a series of spinning targets to select one young person from the audience to open the stadium.
Some 140,000 people are expected at the Olympic site over six days.
The celebrations are part of the British Universities and Colleges Sport Outdoor Athletics Championships and the Visa London Disability Grand Prix which are test events for the venue.
London 2012 hopefuls Perri Shakes-Drayton and Holly Bleasdale are competing at the BUCS event which runs from 4-7 May.
TV presenters Vernon Kay and Gabby Logan hosted the event which saw entertainment from impressionist Jon Culshaw, actor Hugh Bonneville, singer and former Spice Girl Melanie C, rapper Chipmunk and comedian Jack Whitehall.
Later in the week, the Olympic Stadium will also play host to the Sainsbury's 2012 School Games, for 1,600 school-aged elite athletes.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

GPs 'making too many errors prescribing drugs'

                                 Researchers said there needed to be better training for GPs

GPs are making too many mistakes when prescribing drugs to patients, the official regulator says.
A General Medical Council review said errors were being made for one in six people on prescription drugs.
Its study - based on 1,200 patients - found the elderly and the young were the worst affected.
But the report said many mistakes were only minor and some would have been corrected by the pharmacist before the patients were actually given the drugs.
Nonetheless, researchers said it was clear there was room for improvement and called for better training for GPs and more checks on their prescribing practices.
They also suggested the length of the GP consultation should be increased from 10 minutes to 15 to ease the time pressure on doctors.
Lead researcher Professor Tony Avery added: "It's important we do everything we can to avoid all errors."
Lack of monitoring
The most common type of error identified was incomplete information on the prescription, followed by problems with dose and timing of doses.
In total, 18% of patients experienced a mistake with at least one prescription over the course of the year.
But for the over-75s the figure increased to 38%, reflecting the fact they were often on a number of different medications at the same time.
Children under the age of 14 were also more likely to experience an error - something that was put down to the difficulty of getting doses right.
But the overwhelming majority of cases were not classed as serious, with only 4% of errors judged as severe.
These included cases where patients were given drugs which they were allergic to, and a lack of monitoring of potentially risky drugs such as warfarin, which thins the blood.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the government was working with GPs to improve practices.
But he said patients should be reassured that even when GPs made mistakes, there were systems in place to make sure patients were not affected.
"The vast majority of prescriptions are checked by community pharmacists, who spot and put right any errors when they are dispensed."