Wednesday, January 25, 2006

How the dead live (and earn)

Odd story in the Wall Street Journal about that old Futurama favourite, cryonic preservation of the post-mortem rich. Now, it seems, the canny corpsicle-to-be is endeavouring to ensure that their after-life is a comfortable one through a little financial engineering:

Like some 1,000 other members of the "cryonics" movement, [Arizona resort operator David Pizer] has made arrangements to have his body frozen in liquid nitrogen as soon as possible after he dies. In this way, Mr. Pizer, a heavy-set, philosophical man who is 64 years old, hopes to be revived sometime in the future when medicine has advanced far beyond where it stands today.
And because Mr. Pizer doesn't wish to return a pauper, he's taken an additional step: He's left his money to himself.
With the help of an estate planner, Mr. Pizer has created legal arrangements for a financial trust that will manage his roughly $10 million in land and stock holdings until he is re-animated. Mr. Pizer says that with his money earning interest while he is frozen, he could wake up in 100 years the "richest man in the world."
Though cryonic suspension of human remains is still dismissed by most medical experts as an outlandish idea, Mr. Pizer is not alone in hoping to hold onto his wealth into the frosty hereafter.
At least a dozen wealthy American and foreign businessmen are testing unfamiliar legal territory by creating so-called personal revival trusts designed to allow them to reclaim their riches hundreds, or even thousands, of years into the future.
Such financial arrangements, which tie up money that might otherwise go to heirs or charities, are "more widespread than I originally thought," says A. Christopher Sega, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and a trusts and estates attorney at Venable LLP, in Washington. Mr. Sega says he's created three revival trusts in the last year.

It still doesn't answer my basic question on cryonics, though. Even if it ever is technologically possible to revive and heal the subjects, what exactly would be the incentive to do so? This new trend would seem to make it even less likely that the corpsicle's descendents or executors would find it in their interest to do so:

In addition to heirs or charities, estate lawyers are also naming their cryonics clients as beneficiaries. If they come back to life after being frozen, the funds revert back to them. Assuming, that is, that there are no legal challenges to the plans.
Thomas Katz, an estate planner at the law firm Ruden McClosky in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., believes cryonics could raise fundamental legal quandaries. Upon coming back to life, for instance, would a person have to repay their life insurance? "Our legal notion of death is pretty fixed. The scientific notion might not be as time goes by," Mr. Katz says.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Hey hey, it's the Monkeys

Yesterday saw the release of the first album by young Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys. I popped into Fopp on Division Street to pick it up, along with the new Will Oldham/Tortoise album. The shop was the busiest I've seen it, and the guy on the till reckoned four out of five were buying the Monkeys. The Virgin store down on Fargate was also heaving.

Fair enough in the band's hometown, but reports today reckon it's set to be the fastest-selling debut album ever. Phil Penman, head of music at HMV: "It's remarkable how, in just a few months, the Arctic Monkeys have gone from being a cool local band promoted by their fans via the internet to a superstar act connecting with the wider record-buying public."

It is a good album and they are a good - potentially great - band. Lyrically, it's smart, funny, observational and specific in its language and subjects. Not quite up there yet with Pulp (or even maybe Relaxed Muscle), but immensely better than the homogeneous platitudes of the likes of Coldplay. Musically, pretty generic but raucous enough - the kind of thing the likes of the Frank & Walters used to knock out, and unchallenging enough for the Indie Dads to buy for the car (David Cameron will be seen with a copy, I predict).

So if they're basically the Fat Truckers with guitars, why the commercial success? Contrary to the received wisom, talent will not always out. Media hype must be a big part of it, particularly with the MP3-swapping-interweb angle that seemed to amaze traditional hacks. The band built up a dedicated fanbase through gigging and the net, but if that's all it took then They Came From The Stars would be number one (they might yet, of course, but it's taking them a long time to be overnight successes). Maybe also that early cultish success created something that the mainstream decided it wants to buy into, mediated by snowballing word-of-mouth until it reaches its cultural critical mass - but basically it's a matter of fashion, however you might want to dress it up in 'Tipping Point' buzzwords.

Anyway, blether aside, good work to the band, and don't let the glory turn you into wankers like Oasis.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

City demographics

A new study from the IPPR on the demographics of regenerated city centres - in this case, Manchester, Liverpool and Dundee. The findings are unsurprising:

People living in the centre of cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Dundee are twice as likely to be single as the average Briton. Around two thirds are aged 18 to 34, compared with a quarter nationally. Half the people of working age living in Liverpool’s city centre are students. More than one third of working residents in Manchester and Liverpool city centres walk to work, compared to a national average around one in 10.
There is a ‘conveyor belt effect’ in city centres, with most people staying only a few years. A third of residents move in or out each year, around three times higher than the national average.

The main reason these young urban things move out is because they want more space, security and facilities as they pair off and start families. The IPPR recommends that development should now be focused on what it calls the 'inner ring neighbourhoods' surrounding the city centres, and leaving the centres to the young. Urban Splash's Tom Bloxham, who is backing this new research, is already attempting this in the New Islington development in Manc (see below) - but one question is where does the city centre end and this inner ring begin? In places like Leeds, Manc or Sheffield, the stack-em-high 'urban living'-style developments are already stretching several miles outside what I'd consider the centre.

I think there's a lesson to be learnt from cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, where demographically mixed city living in the once-grim tenements is an established fact - mostly because they never suffered the post-war desertion of the city centres that happened in many English cities.

And what, precisely, is the difference between the young, trendy, bar-hopping young professionals of the IPPR report, and the much-maligned binge drinker?


Sunday, January 08, 2006

New Deal or no go?

Another of the government's many schemes to boost the economy in the parts the market doesn't reach is coming up for evaluation. The New Deal for Communities, a ten-year, £2 billion regeneration programme aimed at the most deprived parts of England, is to be judged by a consortium led by Sheffield Hallam University, according to a press release from that uni.

Professor Paul Lawless, from Hallam's Centre for Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University: “This is a real chance to evaluate fully how areas benefit from sustained neighbourhood renewal. NDC puts regeneration into the hands of the communities who will benefit and this study will help us to see how and why partnerships have been able to transform their localities.”

An admirable aim, so be interesting to see how it's all panning out. It would of course be cynical to suggest that the £9 million research funding from the scheme's architects at the ODPM might sway the conclusions.

For a more informal look at another government scheme to fix perceived market failures, see this recent article on the progress so far of the Regional Venture Capital Funds.

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Friday, January 06, 2006


Heartening news in the Yorkshire Post of a new venture which should appeal to all of a moderately Chappist disposition. Fortescue-Carruthers & Co is a new Bradford-based company promising to create quality menswear - from suits and coats to cravats and dressing gowns - from the finest Yorkshire yarns.

Best of all, it's founded by a former gentleman of the press, Tim Wyatt, formerly of the Wool Record and the Telegraph & Argus. He says of the region's textile industry:
"The surviving firms in Bradford and Yorkshire are now producing some of the finest fabrics in the world, which are highly prized among discerning buyers abroad.
"We may no longer clothe the 'asses of the masses', but what has developed are profitable niche businesses working to capacity for the first time in a generation.
"The purpose of Fortescue-Carruthers & Co is to capitalise on this dramatic renaissance of the UK textile industry, offering individual excellence in a world increasingly dominated by shoddy, low- cost mass-produced goods."

Having recently had a suit (12oz Huddersfield worsted, charcoal with subtle red pinstripe) made by Salt's of Saltaire, I can certainly vouch for the quality of clobber being made by the local specialists. It'll be good to get good Yorkshire-made cravats though. For the nuptials, I had to go to Jermyn Street for a decent handmade silk number - although it transpired that its creator, David Saxby of Old Hat, is originally from South Yorkshire himself, so that was excusable.

Another story in today's YP features another fine example of Bradford entrepreneurship. Mumtaz, the excellent Kashmiri restaurant and food producer, is to start making halal baby food, a relatively unexplored market. For a 2002 story on Mumtaz and Bradford's Asian food industry, see here.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Three parts of the jigsaw

Three unconnected pieces in today's Guardian on themes of economic growth and policy -

First up, Nicolas Watt from Sweden, with a sceptical look at the economy now being mooted as the model for a social democratic Europe.
Britain, the champion of flexible Europe, and Jacques Chirac, an opponent of the "Anglo-Saxon" economic approach, believe Scandinavia combines the best of both worlds: relatively low unemployment, at 5.8%, and generous social provision.[...] But even admirers of the system in Sweden, where the top tax rate is 55%, have their doubts. The country has the highest absentee rate of any in the developed world, with 14% of the working population on sick leave or disability benefit at any time. Critics say this contributes to a "hidden unemployed" figure of about 20%.
The criticisms are the usual orthodox ones. But as Joakim Palme, author of a recent EU paper on the Nordic model, concludes: "We should take the criticisms seriously. But the alternatives are not necessarily better."

Next to West Bengal, where Randeep Ramesh reports on the local Communist government's new enthusiasm for foreign investment and privatisation.
The ruthless purge of inefficient industries is unheard of in India, where bloated public companies swallow a fifth of the country's revenue. Economists say that the reasons for such industrial failure lie mainly with the country's ill-conceived pursuit of economic self-sufficiency in the 1970s. When an industry was rendered sick, it was taken over by the government to protect jobs, not so much to contribute to the economy. West Bengal, with powerful communist unions, ensured that the situation was made much worse here than anywhere else.
It's a principled restructuring however, according to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: "I met with Wal-Mart. They wanted to set up a big shopping mall here in Calcutta but I said that we have farmers, fishermen, consumers and lots of small vegetable markets in the city. All would be out of business if Wal-Mart came in." Instead the state will allow the German company Metro to set up shop to provide wholesale produce to five-star hotels and haute cuisine restaurants. "We are not categorically against retail investment but we need to build up a market mechanism. We have to be selective."

Finally, op-ed from Timothy Garton Ash on human rights in the emerging economic superpowers. It's an area rich with ironies:
A perfect example of the wrong way to approach it was given recently by Sir John Bond, the chairman of HSBC, in an interview for Radio 4's Today programme. He made an apologia for the Chinese communist regime worthy of Sidney and Beatrice Webb's whitewashing of Stalinist Russia. China, he said, would probably remain under "one-party leadership" for longer than most commentators expected. He had worked under all sorts of regimes, and he'd seen economies thrive under a one-party system. So much for democracy. As for human rights: if you had a Chinese leader here, observed Sir John, he would probably say that they had first to fulfil the basic human right of people being clothed and fed, before going on to more advanced, western-style human rights. HSBC for communism!

Three angles, or parts of the jigsaw, on one of the big questions of the time. As ever, no easy answers.