Friday, September 29, 2006

Tinsley towers - a city divided

Latest in the continuing saga of the cooling towers at Tinsley, just by the M1 viaduct north-east of Sheffield, which are set to be transformed into a monumental work of conceptual art if only they can be saved from the wrecking ball. The Sheffield Star reports:
A CONTROVERSIAL decision to demolish Tinsley cooling towers today split opinion across South Yorkshire.
The 50-year-old twin towers have always polarised views - from those who think they are ugly to others who believe they represent South Yorkshire's proud industrial heritage.
And their owner's decision to demolish them is proving just as controversial.
E.ON.UK announced it is to bring down the towers before the end of the year due to their deteriorating structural condition...
In a Star internet/text poll on the demolition of the cooling towers, 51 per cent of those who responded said they would be sad to see the towers knocked down while 49 per cent said they would not.


Ballard on Ballardian

Over at Ballardian, Simon Sellars has just published the results of his interview with the big man himself. With a little background research and question suggestions from myself, I modestly add.

It's a great interview - steering clear of the Shepperton/ironic suburbanism/Shanghai childhood tropes recycled by every newspaper and TV profile, while avoiding the fannish trivia that emerges when, say, broadsheet hacks of a certain age interview Bob Dylan.

There's even a surprising divergence into economic history, in response to a question about whether the obscure English pride in its 'world-class hooligans' (something relevant to the themes of Kingdom Come) is a response to the loss of Empire -
I’m not sure it has anything to do with that. The British Empire was lost a long time ago, and most British people didn’t benefit directly from Empire. In fact, there are economic historians who claim we made a loss from the British Empire — that it cost more than we gained from it. Most British people didn’t share in the Empire at all, and I don’t think the loss of all these possessions scattered around the world was a tragedy for the British. It was probably a relief when it collapsed.
‘British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion’ by PJ Cain and AG Hopkins (Longman, 1993) is the definitive text on that subject - always knew that 'Development of the British Economy' course would come in useful...

Simon also asks Ballard about his political leanings, something that causes irregular outbursts of bullshitting over on the JGB email group:
You once said you were becoming more left-wing as you got older. Does that still fit?
I think it probably does, actually. I don’t know about Australia — it strikes me as a pretty wonderful place, from everything I’ve read about it — but here, the gap between rich and poor is widening to such an extent that, particularly in London, it’s begun to shift the whole demographic. The middle class, the people who sustain modern society — the nurses, junior doctors, teachers, civil servants and so on — are being forced out because vast sums of money are pouring into the housing market and distorting it. Gated communities are springing up everywhere, and the moment they can, people are opting for private medicine, private teaching, private hospitals — cutting themselves off from the rest of society, and that’s not a healthy development. One thing I’ve always liked about America, and I think it’s probably true of Australia, is that the children of well-to-do people and the children of people on modest incomes go to the same schools. I think that’s good. It’s not true over here and that’s bad! A class-ridden society with huge divisions — that’s bad. Something ought to be done about it, but I’ll leave that to another generation.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Is this cool? Is it?

Bizarre feature in the current North West Business Insider, asking 'Just how cool is Manchester?'.

On the evidence presented here, not very. The first claim, from Colin Sinclair, chief executive of inward investment agency MIDAS:
“The value of Manchester’s cool reputation is enormous for inward investment. The creative, media and digital sector all want to be in the city because of its history as a centre of fashion and music and that rubs off because the professional and financial sectors always want to be associated with cool. Manchester’s got some of the leading specialists in law and accountancy who serve a cool client base and that’s not a coincidence.”
These 'cool' lawyers, according to feature writer Neil Tague, include those famous 'for getting the wealthy or famous off drink-driving charges like Nick Freeman or Jeanette Mille'. Getting the powerful off drink-driving charges doesn't make you cool - it makes you a bit of a cunt.

The rest of the article isn't much more inspired. While there's certainly a debate to be had about the image associated with, and promulgated by, major cities, the property developers. PR bunnies and bankers being talked about here - though a key part of any city's economic life - are hardly most people's idea of 'cool'. In many cases, the phrase 'all mouth and trousers' seems more appropriate.

Worrying about whether you're seen as cool is a sure sign you're not. As another Manchester philosopher said: The cool people know who the cool people are.

Mind you, Leeds isn't much better. Sheffield, on the other hand, just knows...

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Enquirer folds

Sorry but hardly unexpected news has come in that the North West Enquirer has gone into administration. This from Hold the Front Page -
Managing director Nick Jaspan told HoldtheFrontPage the move meant going forward with the newspaper was too much of a financial risk.
He said: "It was more of a risk than it should have been or than any of us wanted.
"The problem was we were hemorrhaging cash in the first few months. We had 18 or 19 journalists and were geared up to a certain level, but advertisers took longer to come in."
A total of 26 staff have lost their jobs.
Paid-for sales had been between 10,500 and 12,000 a week, against a target of 20,000. Up to 7,000 copies were also given away each week at airports and through various property firms.
[Jaspan] admitted that visibility had been a problem, but said he still supported the idea of a region-wide newspaper.
He said: "I'd try it again without a doubt if I could raise the money.
"I will go to my grave adamant that there is a place for this paper.
"It is very sad and there were a few tears yesterday."

The Press Gazette notes:
The move was prompted by news this morning that one of the paper's backers had changed the conditions on a £200,000 financing package.

My sympathies are with Jaspan and all the journalists involved.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pull the string

Provocative (and rather ironic) review in the Economist (subscription only) of two books criticising the dominance of string theory in modern physics. String theory, it is argued, is simply bad science - there's too many different versions of the core theory from which theorists can pick and choose according to circumstance, it's over-dependent on mathematics rather than experimentation or observation, it's too easily retro-engineered to fit new discoveries but has little or no predictive power, and it's just plain unfalsifiable, putting it closer to metaphysics than actual physics.

However, the biggest problem, both authors believe, is that string theorists have promoted their subject aggressively, often taking the best jobs in universities and blocking the advancement of physicists who would seek to use other means to unify the laws of physics. As string theory involves intricate mathematics, the barrier to entry into its community is high. The very difficulty in overcoming this barrier makes it hard for those who have gained entry to leave. The self-interest of string theorists is thus stifling physics.
[Lee] Smolin argues that the insularity of the theoretical physics community leaves it vulnerable to “groupthink”, a term coined to explain how many intelligent like-minded people can nevertheless be catastrophically wrong.

So where's the irony? It's that all these accusations could, with very little modification, be levelled at academic and applied economics, and the dominance of econometric-heavy neo-classical theory (and its pretensions towards the status of science). Except in that field, the good old Economist seems a lot less sceptical.

Labels: ,

Friday, September 15, 2006

Bradford Space City

News from 'business accelerator' Velocity Bradford (ie the former Bradford Business and Innovation Centre) about a space-themed promotional day -

SpaceCity is a city-wide day of space and business related activities masterminded by Velocity to raise the enterprise agenda within the Bradford district and to celebrate both the beginning of Enterprise Week 2006 and the innovation taking place in Bradford on a daily basis.

speaking to astronauts onboard the International Space Station
having lunch with astronauts from the recent Challenger Space Shuttle mission.
Meeting delegates from:
the European Space Agency.
Russian Mission Control.
SME's involved in satellite navigation systems and emerging space technologies.
Richard Branson's new venture, Virgin Galactic... to name a few.
accelerating your business growth and increasing profits.
helping to inspire the next generation of space travellers, explorers and entrepreneurs.

The primary focus of the day will be the links between education and innovation in the space industry here in Bradford where, believe it or not, we have something of a ‘space cluster’ with satellite communications and space technology companies of varying sizes, Velocity, a specialist business accelerator and the Leeds/Bradford University Wireless Centre for Industrial Collaboration.

It's a good approach, I reckon - even if the Space Age is long past, it's an appealing way to raise interest, particularly in schools given the popularity of the relaunched Dr Who (which, in its earlier incarnations, was what got me interested in space and science). Fred Hoyle, iconoclastic astrophysicist and local boy, would surely approve.

Labels: ,

Angels and upstarts

Good piece in the Economist on business angel investment on both sides of the Atlantic, playing up the friction that can occur between angels and professional VCs -
Typically, a business angel is willing to invest between $25,000 and $250,000 in each of between five and ten new ventures. They expect to make money from the spread of investments, but [Jeffrey Sohl, director of the Centre for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire] believes they also seek “psychic income”. Angels want the satisfaction of putting their commercial acumen, contacts and practical knowledge to work on behalf of talented people whom they like.
Such sentiment may explain why professional venture capitalists can often be critical of business angels. “Angels usually overvalue businesses. This makes it difficult for us to come in later on,” says one. Another adds: “Angels interfere in businesses, particularly in Britain where they have less experience.”
Mr Sohl agrees that there can be problems, cautioning would-be entrepreneurs to make careful inquiries into any prospective investors. “Finding out about your investors before you sign them up is critical,” he says. “And you have to understand what everybody wants from the business. It's a marriage without the possibility of divorce. If you can't make it work, bankruptcy is the only alternative.”

The article also takes for granted the existence of the 'equity gap'. Recent research from Library House (also discussed in the new Real Business) suggests there's no such gap in the UK. I'm not convinced by their analysis, but it is a question that demands further examination.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fibonacci cobblers

The Independent reports new research from Roy Batchelor, professor of banking and finance at City University's Cass Business School, into the belief, apparently widespread among highly-paid stock analysts, that aspects of the behaviour of stock price movements obey occult rules derived from the well-known Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Mean, all mixed up with the surprisingly persistent Elliot Wave hypothesis ('theory' would be too kind a word). To no one's great surprise, this does indeed turn out to be bollocks -

He and the Cass researcher, Richard Ramyar, concluded that, contrary to beliefs held by many technical analysts, markets do not reverse at levels indicated by Fibonacci ratios.
Professor Batchelor said: "Nowadays, we think that most short-term movements in prices in financial markets are random. However, it is a natural human characteristic to look for patterns even in random data, and traders are under added pressure to rationalise their actions and display expertise.
"Theories of stock-market waves are manifestations of this illusion of control, the instinct that makes the dice harder when we want a high number."

As Julia Finch in the Guardian notes:
So will the nonsense now stop? No chance, [Batchelor] says, because the chart community needs every possible straw to grasp at - even if it is utter cobblers.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Barnsley biomass

Today's Society Guardian highlights another aspect of environmental innovation in South Yorkshire, with an increasing use of biomass power in the former coalfields -

Instead of following its neighbours, which long ago replaced coal boilers with gas equivalents, Barnsley is now installing wood heating in all new public buildings and refurbishments, embracing biomass fuel as a preferred energy source.
Because wood is considered carbon neutral - any CO2 released in the combustion process is mopped up by growing trees - the move could slash the council's CO2 emissions by 60% by 2010, 40 years ahead of the government's 2050 target.
For [Barnsley MBC chief engineer, Dick] Bradford it is a simple equation. "From an environmental point of view, heating goes from being highly polluting to no carbon," he says. "It's a no-brainer."
Bradford says Barnsley's plants, which burn 6,500 tonnes of coal a year and generate 15,000 tonnes of CO2, will eventually be replaced with biomass, including the new town hall and nine new secondary schools, which will be replaced with new biomass-heated buildings under the Building Schools for the Future programme. The town's coal is currently sourced by UK Coal from various pits to create a "Yorkshire blend". "Soon, we won't be burning coal any more," says Bradford.
Like the one-time coal economy, biomass could provide a real boost to a depressed regional economy, says Bradford. It could provide employment - an estimated 15 jobs for every megawatt generated; bring neglected woodland into active management; and turn wood waste, which would otherwise be sent to landfill, into a commodity. "We get those big wins and we make the carbon savings targets 40 years ahead of where we should be making them. That's not bad."

Labels: , , ,

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sheffield in Venice

Good article from BBC News to tie in with a Sheffield delegation (including former Human Leaguer Martyn Ware) representing Britain at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

If Sheffield is representative of anything, it is of a post-industrial regional city seeking to regain its footing. There are many such in the world, hence its selection to represent the UK at the biennale, where the theme is the relationship between urban architecture and social dynamics.
Jim Dale, a design lecturer who has lived in and around the city since the age of four in the 1970s, says physically Sheffield is a very strange city.
"It feels the need to tear itself down and rebuild itself every couple of decades. The new buildings that have come in are great, but knowing Sheffield's record, what will we think about them in 20 or 30 years when something else is in fashion?
"But it's funny that the iconic carbuncles that have fallen from favour - the egg box, the wedding cake [a circular 1970s register office] - all had rather affectionate names. That's Sheffield humour for you."

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Clean tech, big money (and the JAMBOG trap)

Interesting news feature in the new Real Deals on VC funds specialising in clean technology, centred on a round table discussion involving three managers of such funds. As well as specialist funds, big players like 3i and Apax Partners are also increasing their exposure to the sector. As James Cameron of Climate Change Capital notes:
"Wind energy, solar energy and biofuels are each bigger markets globally, at $13bn, than e-commerce, at $11bn."
That's an eye-opening statistic, given the hype given to the likes of Amazon, and the continued disdain from some quarters for anything smacking of environmentalism or that dread word 'sustainability'.

There's also a piece by Real Deals editor Ross Butler on the importance (or otherwise) of regional offices for private equity firms. As I've noted in countless previous features, there's been a general retrenchment away from the regions, with a few firms such as Isis as notable counter-examples. Ross did ask me to write a side-piece for this article on the Leeds market, which unfortunately I couldn't fit into the schedule - mainly because I was deep into another long deals piece for the sister mag, Real Business, this time looking at expansion or development capital. That's a market that's been largely ignored in recent years, but many of the advisors and VCs I spoke to reckon that there's more money moving back in. In large part, that's because the VCs need to secure themselves a niche in a crowded market and not just be seen as JAMBOG - an acronym, we also learn from this RD, for 'just another mid-market buy-out group'.

Seems slightly odd that something as innovative as the latest clean technologies, and something as traditional as mid-market minority-stake development capital, are both seen as niches. Maybe it says more about the state of the mainstream.

Labels: , ,

Campaign for Real Wensleydale

I heartily endorse this campaign, managed by the Wensleydale Creamery, to win European Protected Designation of Origin for their cheese. Thick granary bread, wedge of Wensleydale, all toasted with a liberal dollop of Hendersons - what could be better? Especially if served with a pint of Black Sheep or similar on the side.

But do I detect the hand of Ian Green, former head hack at Yorkshire Business Insider and Venturedome and now at Wakefield's Green PR, in all this? Oh, yes. But I'll support it anyway.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Blogging Sinclair

My interview with Iain Sinclair (as trailered below) went up last week on It's had a pretty positive response from readers and the wider blogpond - Ballardian site editor Simon Sellars reckons it's the site's most popular post in its 18 months of publishing.

It's been an interesting experience for me for two reasons. First, this kind of literary interview is a world away from my usual work, the bread-and-butter writing on business, tech and corporate finance issues. Which isn't to say that there isn't as much enjoyment or stimulation to (occasionally) be had from those areas - or even to say that they're entirely unrelated, particularly with regards to the urban regeneration/redevelopment beat and some of Sinclair's concerns - but it's good to know I can still hack a different furrow. I like having a range of subjects, and this just might potentially lead to other things in the same arena. At least, that's my justification for doing this job gratis, other than getting the chance to sit and talk for an hour with one of my favourite writers, about another of my favourite writers.

Second, this is the first major piece I've written for first publication on the web since blogs became an integral feature of the net - such things were not around back when I was knocking out features for It's great to see something being published almost as soon as it's written (well, within a week or so anyway, given that I had to get the photos developed and Simon had to find time to lay it all out) rather than the month or more of most magazine schedules, and to get immediate feedback from readers. I'm particularly proud of the chap who said he'd spent his entire morning reading the interview and checking out the links rather than working. And it's been interesting to see the piece being picked up by other blogs - some of my favourite reads, like BLDGBLOG, Strange Attractor and Mountain7, as well as a few I'm not familiar with but found via Technorati or Google. It's good to see different people zeroing in on different aspects of the interview - whether Ballard was ever SF, the end of psychogeography, or Sinclair's proposed 'Beijing Orbital' project - and very good to see people vowing to read either more Ballard or more Sinclair.

So am I now a convert to the claims that blogs, or the net in its wider forms, can and should wipe out traditional print journalism? No - at least, not until such media can be as easily accessed, stored, and read on the train or in the bath. And I might be conservative in this regard, but as the writer, seeing your words on screen just isn't the same as seeing them on paper.

To wrap up, it seems a shame to waste this unused shot from the Barbican -

Labels: , ,