Archive for the ‘England’ Category

London to penalise gas-guzzling cars

Eeyess.

Owners of gas-guzzling cars will have to pay £25 ($49) a day to drive them in central London from October, mayor Ken Livingstone said on Tuesday.

The decision, following a year of consultations, is part of a package that Livingstone is bringing in to cut London’s carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2025.

The 25 pound daily tax on vehicles in central London’s Congestion Charge zone emitting 225 grams of carbon dioxide per km would apply in the same way as the normal 8 pounds daily charge does to all but the cleanest cars.

But to force home the environmental point of a congestion scheme that initially had no green goal, the exemption granted to residents in the zone will be removed from drivers of the polluting four-wheel drive and top-end luxury cars.

That means that the owner of a gas-guzzler who chooses to drive in the zone every day will end up paying 6,500 pounds a year for the privilege.

Should be interesting. “Gas guzzling” cars are something akin to Giffin goods (unlike normal goods, Giffin goods break the law of demand: as price increases, so too does quantity demand). Hummers, for example, are ever-more popular, despite being ever-more expensive to run – which is precisely where the popularity comes in.

A tax that makes such cars GBP6,500 more expensive to run in the city may send exactly the same “opulence signal”.

Ken Livingstone is gambling however that the other signal will be more important: by sending such a strong signal that society frowns so heavily upon their ass-headed mode of transportation, he is hoping to appeal at least to impure altruism (if not to their bank-books) in getting them to down-size.

Either way, it ought to be fun to watch.

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Retail dot co dot uk

Retail is something on which I harp(ed) often. Specifically, throughout the semester. My students must think I’m the most miserable bastard they’ve ever come across.

But. Like interest rates vs. inflation, I’ve found the English (or rather, the English media) to be more sincere and open about risks in the economy. The Big Picture, for example, routinely comes down on the scam of retail numbers, or that of housing sales (which he has been doing long before this piece popped up in the Wall Street Journal). Perhaps the Guardian is just staffed with miserable bastards like me. It would explain it.

Well. After exporting their sub-prime mess, it was inevitable that the retail mess would follow.

Britain’s retailers experienced tough trading conditions at the start of their crucial Christmas period and expect weak consumer demand to persist through the January sales, the CBI reported today.

In its monthly snapshot of the high street, the employers’ organisation said shops and stores had recorded their weakest sales growth in more than a year during the first two weeks of December.

While 42% of firms said business volumes were up on a year earlier, 33% said they were lower. The rounded balance of +8 percentage points was the weakest since November 2006 and the fourth successive month in which retailers had seen their sales expectations disappointed.

Should be interesting. I’ve explained frequently to students that the UK and the US have similar, and similarly, wicked problems: massive levels of unsecured debt holding up a retail-heavy economy. The problem is how to ‘fix’ both public and private dissavings without bringing the walls down around our ears (this was a question on the final exam, in fact – few students did a good job with it, though).

Apparently the Bank of England is also ready for another go-around. Add that to yesterday’s enormous intervention by the European Central Bank and to the US’ now-negative real interest rates. I’d be interested to see, around next February or so, some numbers on the total cash pumped into the OECD economies – dollar-terms, but also relative. I’d like to see the percentage increases in the money supply during this period (it’s that Austrian thing again).

On Monbiot on speed cameras

Monbiot has written an excellent article (as though he has any other kind, the bastard) on speed cameras in the UK. Specifically the fact that they work, and that people who say that they don’t invariably sacrifice good analysis at the alter of their own recklessness and selfish libertarianism.

Last week the transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick said he intends to double the penalty for drivers who break the speed limit by a wide margin. This means that people could lose their licences after committing just two offences. The papers are furious. The petrolheads have called for a petition which “will get as big a response as the road pricing one.”

Yes it’s brave, but not quite as brave as you might think. Despite endless attempts by the media to trivialise it, an RAC survey reveals that 62% of drivers still regard speeding as a serious offence. Even more surprisingly, 82% of British people surveyed approve of speed cameras, and the percentage has risen slightly since the mid-1990s. There is a genuine silent majority here, which is rarely represented in the media.

Please bear in mind that I am leaving out his endnotes as I go (his references can be found with his article).

My interpretation of this is that the doubling of the penalty is a function of this “silent majority” (a term I tend otherwise to dislike, co-opted as it most often is by Tory/Conservative/Liberal/Republican racists – Liberal referring to the Howard government), rather than deterrence: re-doubling the number of speed cameras would do that.

Monbiot spends some time criticising the BBC and their programme Top Gear (about which the less said the better, other than that it is petrol-head/hoon-legitimising utter waste of spectrum). Then to the interesting parts:

In Saturday’s Telegraph, Christopher Booker and Richard North published a long article appropriately titled “Speed cameras: the twisted truth”. A sharp decline in the death rate on the roads suddenly slowed down in the mid-1990s. They attribute this to the government’s new focus on enforcing the speed limits, especially by erecting speed cameras. What they fail to mention is that deaths started falling sharply again in 2003, after the number of speed cameras had doubled in three years.

They use similarly selective data to argue that there is no evidence that cameras have reduced deaths even at the spots where they are deployed. They hang their case on an oversight in a government report published in 2003. The report claimed that the accident rate had fallen by 35% where cameras had been installed. Booker and North rightly observe that it had failed to account for a statistical effect called “regression to the mean”. There might have been an abnormal blip in the accident figures, which would have returned to background levels of their own accord. The truth, they maintain, is that “speed cameras actually increased” the rate of accidents.

But what Booker and North fail to tell their readers was that in 2005 the government conducted a new analysis, which took account of regression to the mean. The new figures showed an average reduction of 19% for collisions which caused deaths or injuries after speed cameras had been installed.

Not to pass up some decent statistics. The government’s report found statistically significant reductions in Killed or Seriously Injured and Personal Injury Collisions (KSIs and PICs – their terms of art):

results1

Overall,

regression2

Eco 145 students: confidence intervals! Everyone else: when a 95% confidence interval is entirely negative (positive) the effect being estimated is statistically significantly likely to be negative (positive). I.e. irregardless of those ‘blips’ to which people best ignored like to refer.

The report itself is quite impressive. Specifically, they found that:

  • Vehicle speeds were down– surveys showed that vehicle speeds at speed camera sites had dropped by around 6% following the introduction of cameras. At new sites, there was a 31% reduction in vehicles breaking the speed limit. At fixed sites, there was a 70% reduction and at mobile sites there was a 18% reduction. Overall, the proportion of vehicles speeding excessively (i.e. 15mph more than the speed limit) fell by 91% at fixed camera sites, and 36% at mobile camera sites.
  • Both casualties and deaths were down – after allowing for the long-term trend, but without allowing for selection effects (such as regression-to-mean) there was a 22% reduction in personal injury collisions (PICs) at sites after cameras were introduced. Overall 42% fewer people were killed or seriously injured. At camera sites, there was also a reduction of over 100 fatalities per annum (32% fewer). There were 1,745 fewer people killed or seriously injured and 4,230 fewer personal injury collisions per annum in 2004. There was an association between reductions in speed and reductions in PICs.
  • There was a positive cost-benefit of around 2.7:1. In the fourth year, the benefits to society from the avoided injuries were in excess of £258 million compared to enforcement costs of around £96 million.

Top Gear really is a stupid programme.

Does the government and the BBC actually believe that English = white?

I’m serious. As I read this on the road today (passenger, not driver), it did rather blow my mind.

Probe into housing ‘unfairness’

An inquiry into the “widespread perception” that immigrants are jumping housing queues is to be launched by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Its head, Trevor Phillips, said the belief migrants were gaining “unfair advantages” was fuelling tensions.

And the question of “whether the housing system is being abused to the detriment of anyone – including white families” had to be finally settled.

In a speech in Birmingham, Mr Phillips said people were “realistic” about migration and accepted they had to share services such as schools and hospitals with new arrivals.

But he added: “What, however, does drive tension and hostility is a widespread public perception, that new migrants too often get an unfair advantages to which they are not entitled.

“And one area where this idea of unfairness is most frequently alleged – is in housing allocation.

“Specifically that white families are cheated out of their right to social housing by newly arrived migrants.”

At no point in their story does the BBC indicate that they, at least, understand that “English” does not equal “white”; that migrants can also be “white”; or that residents and citizens can also not be “white”. They do offer this:

He said there was “no reliable evidence to back up this claim” and public feeling was “driven by careless media and racist parties”.

He must be referring to (a) people who give speeches equating citizenship in the UK with being “white”, and/or (b) media organisations who reproduce such speeches with no insertion of common sense. Right?

Perhaps the rest of us just get to let our hair down, while the Tories rattle the chains of Enoch Powell. All things being relative, and so forth. I look forward to a resurgence in the socially-acceptable racism of newspaper articles about Gypsies, in the coming months.

Britain to claim more than 1 million sq km of Antarctica

First Japan, then Russia. Now Britain:

The United Kingdom is planning to claim sovereign rights over a vast area of the remote seabed off Antarctica, the Guardian has learned. The submission to the United Nations covers more than 1m sq km (386,000 sq miles) of seabed, and is likely to signal a quickening of the race for territory around the south pole in the world’s least explored continent.

The claim would be in defiance of the spirit of the 1959 Antarctic treaty, to which the UK is a signatory. It specifically states that no new claims shall be asserted on the continent. The treaty was drawn up to prevent territorial disputes.

The Foreign Office, however, has told the Guardian that data is being gathered and processed for a submission to the UN which could extend British oil, gas and mineral exploitation rights up to 350 miles offshore into the Southern Ocean.

As we have seen/discussed more or less on an ongoing basis. For all our big talk about international co-operation, none of us have, truly, accepted that we are all in this together (sorry, John F Kennedy. It just isn’t happening). We are friends of only very fair weather, indeed.

The kick is that, like the Russian plan, reliance is upon the Law of the Sea:

Last month the Guardian revealed the UK is working on three other sub-sea claims in the Atlantic: around South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, surrounding Ascension Island and in the Hatton/Rockall basin, west of Scotland. Britain has already lodged a joint claim at the UN – with France, Ireland and Spain – for a large area of seabed in the Bay of Biscay.

The Foreign Office confirmed yesterday that the UK was working to extend sovereign territory into new areas. “There are five claims in total that the UK is hoping to put forward,” a statement said. “They are in the Bay of Biscay, around Ascension, off the British Antarctic Territory, around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and in the Hatton/Rockall basin.

“We believe these five meet the geological conditions required. The claims are based on article 76 of the UN convention of the law of the sea.”

…meaning the US can’t, for now, play. For now. The fact that the US is not in the game has never stopped them ruining such games before (International Criminal Court, anyone?), and no country in this game is pretending any of their own niceties will last, either:

The UK claim on Antarctica will be its most controversial because it depends on proximity to the British Antarctic Territory which overlaps rival land claims by Chile and Argentina. The environmental protocol to the Antarctic treaty, agreed in 1991, currently prohibits all mineral related activity, other than for scientific research.

The stakes are perceived, simply put, to be too high. The US has been documented as taking on Iraq (a) for oil, and (b) because they could (as opposed to the far tougher tasks of Iran or North Korea). We are seeing, and will see, most countries doing what they can to get what they can while they can. The basic behaviour is not that different. One wonders whether it’s even changed since the Ardipithecenes (no, no apologies to the creationists).

It shall be interesting, to say the least, to observe just how much lip-service our governments pay to how many international treaties, and how many nasty lawyers are brought to bear to stretch them how far. No?

Monbiot on coal

George Monbiot has written about coal many a time. This time slightly differently, as he stands at the edge of, and describes in brilliant form, a burgeoning new open-cast mine out in Wales.

I recommend that you use his post for the references, rather than my shoddy efforts.

It looks as if we are about to re-enter the coal age. Though the electricity companies spend millions telling us about their investments in renewable energy, at least four of them – E.On, RWE npower, ScottishPower and Scottish and Southern – are developing plans for new coal-burning generators, which produce roughly twice the carbon emissions of gas burners. According to one government document, there are “£20 billion of new coal-fired power stations planned to be built in the UK before 2020″(1).

The power companies are confident that the government will back them. Its Energy White Paper, published in May, begins by explaining the need to develop a low carbon economy. But buried on page 112 is a commitment to “secure the long-term future of coal-fired power generation”(2).

This is justified by the prospect that one day carbon emissions might be captured and buried in geological formations: a process known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS. But while the government has asked companies to build a demonstration plant by 2014, there are no firm plans for any commercial venture. The energy white paper admits that “CCS would not be commercially viable unless costs fell substantially … or unless the carbon price rose sufficiently to provide a larger financial incentive.”(3) In a parliamentary debate in May, Alastair Darling, then in charge of energy, acknowledged that the technologies required for CCS “might never become available”(4). We could be stuck with a new generation of coal-burning power stations, approved on the basis of a promise which never materialises, which commit us to massive emissions for 40 years.

There is another policy buried in the white paper which is already being implemented. This is to “maximise economic recovery … from remaining coal reserves.”(5) In 2006, British planning authorities considered twelve applications for new opencast coal mines. They rejected two of them and approved ten.(6) They have done so, the story of Ffos-y-fran shows, with the active support of the government.

And of the town?

The edge of the site is just 36 metres from the nearest homes, yet there will be no compensation for the owners, and their concerns have been dismissed by the authorities. Though local people have fought the plan, their council, the Welsh government and the Westminster government have collaborated with the developers to force it through, using questionable methods. I have found evidence which suggests to me that a member of Tony Blair’s government used false information to seek to persuade the Welsh administration to approve the pit. But perhaps the most remarkable fact is this: that outside Merthyr Tydfil hardly anyone knows it is happening.

At first the people of Merthyr Tydfil could not understand why their representatives were siding with the developers. Merthyr has a long Labour tradition of social solidarity. While many people lament the passing of the deep mines, open-casting is unpopular. Petitions circulated by the local protest group raised 10,000 signatures. But the council, which is dominated by the Labour party, the Labour assembly member and the Welsh assembly have all helped the mining company to fight the objectors.

There are 432 local authorities in the United Kingdom. Life expectancy in Merthyr comes 429th.(7) As a result of the legacy of heavy industry, smoking and bad diet, it has Wales’s highest rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, strokes and certain heart conditions.(8) All these diseases are exacerbated by air pollution and stress. The pit will be dug into a steep hillside overhanging the town.

To put ‘overhanging the town’ into perspective, from the Ffos-y-fran Health Impact Assessment Steering Group:

Ffos aerial pic

Ffos map pic

The houses nearest to the mine are literally across the road.

The remainder of Monbiot’s article is well worth reading.

Liberate by De-liberating, Vote by Compulsion

Waiting for a couch to be delivered.

I take an interest in this because Australia does, in fact, have compulsory voting (and the highest participation!). As a result, I have a definite prejudice towards the civic duty of citizens to vote – or, rather, to participate, one way or another. To pay attention, to engage, etc. Good luck getting that one past the libertarian crowd, ’round here. Shame.

Anyway, over at the excellent openDemocracy, the debate is being framed thus:

The ideal of democracy is that citizens can on an equal basis engage with and influence the direction of their society. This notion of joint self-determination poses a huge number of questions: what defines the ‘society’; who qualifies as a citizen; what kind of equality can there be; does it just mean the tyranny of the majority or are minorities protected by rights encoded in a higher law; how do citizens have equal access to the arguments?

These two practical questions, one posed in the recalcitrant Kingdom that still does not believe itself to be European, the other looking at the grandest experiment in true international sharing of sovereignty of our time, come at the same issue: how can citizens engage in a fashion that gives legitimacy and credibility to the outcome?

openDemocracy is hosting both debates in two separate sections of its coverage. They are part of an experiment in opening out openDemocracy in a networked fashion to new partners committed to the same high standards.

Yes, it is a British debate, not an American one (although the aforelinked Slate article, from 2004, can be visited for that discussion, though poorer). The arguments-against, however, are not much different. Nor, for that matter, are the arguments-for.

Fiona MacTaggart, an articulate Labour MP who was a Minister and is now just a regular member of parliament on the so-called ‘back benches’ argued at a recent Fabian conference in favour of compulsory voting. She wants to see it as part of a larger reform of the voting system to make it more proportional. She also argued that while citizens should vote as a duty and by law they had to have the right to tick a box saying ‘none of the above’.

A member of the audience, Suzy Dean was appalled. She felt it was an attempt to resolve by compulsion what should be addressed by freedom, and a persuasive change of behaviour by the parties. She sent her denunciation of Fiona MacTaggart to us. It opens our debate. We are publishing it with the MP’s reply. You can read Susy here and Fiona here.

I think that, no matter what system compels, or merely encourages, you to vote, this is a debate worth reading.

Going postal

I have such a thing for postal economics.

EU delaying opening up of competition in Europe’s postal sector

European Union governments on Monday pushed back the full opening up of competition in Europe’s €88 billion postal sector by two years, until 2011, in the face of strong pressure from some national postal monopolies.

Although resistance was led by countries nervous about foreign competitors poised to swoop in, EU officials rejected suggestions that nationalist politics were at play in the $125 billion market.

Well, yes. They would.

This is, of course (and as I painfully revisit) while Britain’s Royal Mail lost its monopoly, lost it early, lost more customers than we could count, faster than we could count them anyway, and now faces the likes of TNT.

So … Britain’s reaction?

The commission, backed by Britain and Germany, has said that it was unfair that some countries had fully opened competition while others had done nothing. It has demanded that all EU nations open up their postal services and put independent regulators in charge.

So far Sweden, Britain and Finland are the only EU countries to have scrapped their postal monopolies completely. Plans are under way do so in Germany and the Netherlands by January. In Germany, new competitors have already emerged to challenge Deutsche Post in certain areas, giving them ready-made networks when full competition takes effect.

British officials welcomed the proposal, saying that the opening up of the British postal sector in January 2006 had vastly improved the performance of Royal Mail, the national postal operator.

Given this whole agenda was apparently laid out some 15 years ago, it is taking on positively NAFTA-esque dimensions (Eco 1 students will recognise that as a reference to Mexican sugar).

Finally, the International Herald Tribune was also kind enough to bring this to our delighted attention:

“This does not signal a victory for the forces of protectionism in Europe,” said Oliver Drewes, a spokesman for Charlie McCreevy, the EU’s internal market commissioner. “This will enhance competition.”

Brussels. The gift that keeps on giving (go read about Boris Johnson’s poor daughter, some time).

Portugal and England make big moves on renewable energy

First, England!

Barrage of turbines across the Severn could provide 5% of UK’s electricity

Tidal power generated from more than 200 turbines in a 10-mile long barrage across the Severn estuary could provide nearly 5% of Britain’s electricity for 120 years with minimal climate change emissions and should be investigated urgently, government advisers said yesterday.

But what would be Britain’s largest power project and one of the most ambitious civil engineering challenges in the world would significantly affect the visual and marine environment for up to 30 miles around it and have mixed long-term economic and ecological impacts, said the Sustainable Development Commission.

It would mean the loss of 11,000 hectares of inter-tidal and other protected land, could limit the expansion of shipping in the estuary and would affect miles of beaches as well as the Severn bore. But it could also provide a much needed river crossing and be a fillip to tourism and the economies of Wales and south-west England, it said.

Next, Portugal!

Portugal gambles on ‘sea snakes’ providing an energy boost

guardian

Portugal is poised to open what will be the world’s first commercial wavefarm, and while the coastline’s formidable surf will be a source of electricity, the engineers need a decent “weather window” to be able to get their machinery out to sea.

The Pelamis machines, named after the Latin for sea snake and developed by a Scottish company that leads the world in one of the newest renewable energy fields, are a series of red tubes, each about the size of a small commuter train, linked together, and pointed in the direction of the waves. The waves travel down the tubes, causing them to bob up and down, and a hydraulic system harnesses this movement to generate electricity.

The three “sea snakes” will soon be towed out to a spot some three miles from the coast of northern Portugal at Agucadoura, from where the electricity they produce will be pumped into the national grid.

Good for the Guardian. We love turbines, here. Like the East River turbines, the Portugese plans have suffered somewhat from, well, the environment applied:

… the hi-tech venture has not been without its problems. The latest date for inauguration of the wavefarm was to be Wednesday, but a combination of bad weather, bad luck and the pitfalls of developing any new technology has meant the machines are still on dry land, awaiting the next calm spell to be taken out to sea.

England’s plan has its own, truly interesting, quirk:

“It is imperative that a project of this national importance should be publicly-led and publicly-owned, but we do not rule out private enterprise partners,” said Jonathon Porritt, chair of the commission.

The SDC emphasised that the lower rate of interest available to government-led projects would provide the only realistic way of funding an “immense” compensatory package for the environment lost as well as providing electricity at a competitive price.

That ought to be interesting, indeed – fans of turbines, we are, here, no fans at all of PFI.

Two very impressive projects, proving Europe as quite the reliable path-finder for the rest of us. From the Guardian’s article on the wave farms:

EU current account Top generators

This year the EU set a target of increasing the share of electricity produced by renewables from 6.5% to 20% by 2020. European commission figures show that only 2% of Britain’s energy use came from renewables in 2004. Germany has 200 times as much installed solar power and 10 times as much wind power as Britain.

Wind power set records in 2006, the European Wind Energy Association reported, as 7,588 MW of capacity was installed, a 23% rise on 2005. Germany, the world’s wind-power leader, had 20,000MW of installed capacity; Spain was second. The UK has 40% of Europe’s wind resource but is only seventh in the world in installed capacity.

Marine power One of the world’s largest tidal projects was recently unveiled off Orkney. A wave hub off the coast of Cornwall this month gained planning approval and could generate electricity for 14,000 homes.

Solar In March the first commercial concentrating solar power plant in Europe was inaugurated in Seville. When completed in 2013 it will produce enough energy for 180,000 homes. According to industry estimates only 20,000 homes in the UK have solar panels.

Biomass The EU meets about 4% of its total energy needs with biomass. Its share the energy mix varies from 1.3% in the UK to 29.8% in Latvia.

Ultimately, I don’t see that Europe’s supplies of oil and gas are any more – or less – reliable than those of, say, the US, but it’s nice to see some intelligent responses to it. I’d like to see, in the US, some form of applied/experimental investment in similar enterprises around existing energy infrastructure. Wind and tidal energy, for example, is probably best-captured in areas where drilling and refineries (on land or off-shore) already exist. What better way for Big Oil to secure itself than to take advantge of such an expanding, and appreciating, market?

I’m not saying I think tens of billions in quarterly profits for Big Oil are my preference, but I don’t see anyone else stepping forth.

Royal mail update x

Oh, Royal Mail. Why do your workers insist you bleed slowly to death?

The main postal union, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), has announced further details of its forthcoming UK-wide strike action.

Its 130,000 Royal Mail members will walk-out for 48 hours between noon on Thursday, 4 October, and the same time on Saturday, 6 October.

A second 48-hour strike will take place from 0300 BST on Monday, 8 October, to the same time on Wednesday, 10 October.

What is it about this time? The same thing it’s been about every time.

At the centre of the dispute is the CWU’s objection to the Royal Mail’s 2.5% pay offer and modernisation plans.

The union claims the shake-up plans will put about 40,000 jobs at risk.

It just doesn’t change. This time around, managers look like joining:

Royal Mail managers look set to join postal strike action over cuts to pensions.

The managers have previously stepped in to provide cover during strikes by Royal Mail workers but they look likely to join the strikes, according to the Unite union, which represents 12,000 Royal Mail managers.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the Royal Mail. Somewhat – as I’ve said before, irregardless of the reasons why the Royal Mail has come to this point, 40,000 of its jobs are at risk because it has lost its monopoly on mail delivery in the UK. Soon it will also lose its functioning monopoly on “lest-leg” (i.e. to your door) deliveries. And it’s bleeding customers.

It can lose 40,000 jobs and fit in, in this new world, or it can keep the 40,000 jobs and lose itself. The insistence of workers on striking just seems to me cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Or however that goes. This insistence is common, and commonly justified, by unions. It can easily be true that the a company is being pared back while its own executive level bathes in cocaine and leather-upholstered meeting rooms. I just don’t see that at the Royal Mail.

And I’m Australian – I won’t even cross a picket-line. Also, I’m less sympathetic to going after pensions. These people worked to your conditions, for the fixed income in retirement that you promise. Leave them alone.

In the interests of balance (not to mention interest), another perspective:

Mail Bosses Want to Smash Union

With the announcement of new strike dates by the Communication Workers’ Union (all out on 5, 6, 8 and 9 October, with rolling action after that), the Royal Mail bosses have decided to go for broke — for instance by announcing a drastic attack on postal workers’ pensions.

Okay.