Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wind and fury

Peel Airports, part-owners of the former Sheffield City Airport and owners of the slightly more active Finningley (sorry, Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield), have lodged a curious objection to a proposed wind turbine at the Advanced Manufacturing Park on the Sheffield/Rotherham border.

The Star reports:
AIRCRAFT could be put in danger by a giant wind turbine set to be built near Sheffield airport, it was claimed today.
Worried aviation bosses fear the 270ft high structure, with 90ft blades, could potentially lead to a disaster near Sheffield Parkway.
Peel Airports says the turbine, near the approach funnel for the runway, would "constitute a serious obstacle to the safe operation of aircraft".

The curious thing is that Peel has done pretty much all it can to stop planes flying into Sheffield City - last time I spoke to them, their plans involved a massive expansion of the business park and housing across the runway, retaining only a heliport. Their investment in the site during the run-up to their development of Finningley raised a few eyebrows at the time. (To be fair, Sheffield City Airport was never an entirely viable venture - it seems typically Sheffield endeavour to have an international airport with a runway too short to take most commercial aircraft).

Knowing the topography of the site, I'd also guess that any plane in danger of hitting a 80m windmill (which is, after all, outside the approach funnel) would also be in danger of scraping trucks on the nearby Parkway dual carriageway. Or, with a sudden gust of wind, reenacting 9-11 on the Tinsley twin towers (each barely 4m shorter than the proposed windmill).

Local residents are also reported to have objected about the plans, which they believe will lead to an overbearing presence and possible noise pollution. Yes, keep those unsightly windmills off our slagheaps! God knows what they'd say if anyone threatened to re-open the collieries, or even to fly planes over their heads.

I'd love to see a wind turbine on the site, particularly if the Tinsley towers are finally demolished. It'd be a great landmark for Sheffield, and a statement of intent for the new Factory of the Future development which will have a large focus on developing more environmentally-friendly technologies.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Equal work, equal pay

Research news to gladden the heart of a trade unionist, or anyone concerned with workplace equity. Experimental economists at the University of Innsbruck have found that standardised employment contracts based on the "equal work, equal pay" principle increase worker performance and market efficiency boost motivation. There is a clear increase in performance levels and market efficiency, compared to individually negotiated contracts.

From the press release:
Their research has proved for the first time that employers draw clear benefits from standardised salaries because, if a market only issues incomplete contracts, employee responsibilities become difficult to pin down. In other words, standardisation does not simply increase salaries, it also generates economic advantages in the shape of better performance and greater market efficiency.

Research leader Prof. Matthias Sutter notes:
"Our observations revealed that, compared to individual agreements, salaries related to standardised contracts are 30 percent higher. However, performance is also higher in these cases - by 29 percent. Faced with these results, it comes as no surprise that salary standardisation also increases market efficiency by almost a quarter. Standardised contracts, the economic advantages of which have never before been investigated, are now becoming increasingly attractive thanks to these results."

The results appear to depend on a cyclical effect - employers who wish to reward individual employees must also reward other workers, encouraging everyone to work harder and thus increasing market efficiency. By contrast, individual and collective responsibilities are difficult to specify in individually negotiated contracts. I'd guess there's also other behavioural effects in less equitable workplaces, though that's not directly addressed here.

There's a clear lesson for many employers, Sutter concludes:
"Particularly in the university system, employees who essentially have the same job description are remunerated on very different scales. This is due to the rapidly changing employment conditions in the public service sector. As a result, lecturers and professors get different contracts with different salary and pension rights. Our data now suggests that this could have a negative impact on performance."


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman RIP

Samuel Brittain in the Financial Times has a full obituary of Milton Friedman - one of the few economists who could justifiably be called a household name (perhaps the only, following the death of JK Galbraith earlier this year.

I've not read a great deal of Friedman, perhaps in large part because I've been put off him by some of his most ardent (and/or Thatcherite) advocates or associates. But by Brittain's account, there was far more to him than the public image suggested:
Those who wanted to write him off as a right-wing Republican were disabused by the variety of radical causes he championed. I was not impressed in my own student years by the claims to a belief in personal freedom of the pro-market British economists whom I first encountered. It was not until I came across Friedman, and learned that he had spent more time in lobbying against the US “draft” than on any other policy issue, that I began to take seriously the wider philosophic protestations of the pro-market economists.
Friedman's iconoclasm endured. He regarded the anti-drugs laws as virtually a government subsidy for organised crime. Even in the financial sphere, he espoused causes such as indexed contracts and taxes as a way of mitigating the harm done by inflation which did not endear him to natural conservatives.
Friedman's direct influence on Margaret Thatcher was much less than often supposed. Although they got on together at a private dinner before the 1979 election, the two did not know each other well and Friedman is only mentioned en passant in the former prime minister's memoirs. Her own inspiration, as she relates, came from Hayek[...] On a broader front, however, without Friedman's writings and television expositions, the Thatcher government would not have enjoyed even that very limited degree of approval that it did among a minority of the intellectual elite.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Site tweaking

I've overhauled the core features pages of the main 2ubh site. Rather than having links to dozens of my old articles in a continuous list, I've divvied them up into four (occasionally overlapping) categories - corporate finance; regional development; science and technology; and odds and ends - each with its own sub-menu page. This should, I hope, make it easier for browsers and potential commissioners to find the kinds of article they're interested in. Let me know if it doesn't.

I've also added another recent book review from the Fortean Times to the reviews page, of Clifford D Conner's fascinating A People's History of Science.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Happy thoughts

A few months ago, I referred to Charles Kenny's fascinating paper 'Were People in the Past Poor and Miserable?'.
Kenny recently dropped me a line to say that he's just had a book published expanding on many of the themes of that paper.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Utility: Happiness in philosophical and economic thought is co-authored by Charles and his father, the noted philosopher Anthony Kenny. Charles' own blog summarises the book:
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Utility relates age-old philosophical discussions of the nature of a worth-while life to the recent growth of interest among economists in criteria for quality of life. Reflection on the philosophical tradition suggests that there are three key elements in the notion of a good life: welfare, contentment, and dignity. Welfare is capable of objective measurement in terms of such elements as food intake, disease level, expectation of life and so on. Contentment is also measurable, to a more controversial degree, by means of questionnaires eliciting self-ascriptions of subjective well being. Dignity is the most difficult of all the elements of well-being to determine and quantify, but it is related to measures of civil rights, economic and gender equality and measures of the quality of employment. The book discusses what philosophers and economists have had to say about the nature and causes of welfare, dignity and contentment. On the basis of this analysis we draw conclusions for national and international policies.

The blog includes a detailed precis for each chapter, with plenty of links to other work on the subject. There's also an equally detailed introduction to Kenny's other new book (busy chap!), Overselling the Web? Development and the Internet, which touches on everything from the implications of Microsoft's increasingly bloated Word software for developing economies to the infamous Nigerian email scams as a source of economic convergence, while debunking many of the sillier claims about ICT revolutionising the lives of the global poor. Kenny, it's probably safe to say, isn't a big fan of Thomas Friedman.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Wainhouse Tower in trouble

Apologies if I seem fixated on Yorkshire towers, but our most local landmark seems to be in dire straits.

The Halifax Courier reports:
HALIFAX'S historic Wainhouse Tower – shut to the public a year ago – will stay closed indefinitely.
Calderdale Council says safety problems at the 130-year-old landmark are worsening.
And current funding means renovations will not be considered until April at the earliest.
A regular inspection of the tower revealed problems with ornate masonry at its top.

The paper's leader rightly notes:
It is a lovely piece of history and a unique piece of architecture worth keeping. The question is should our council tax be spent on its renovation?
Surely it is a cause worthy of English Heritage or the National Trust who could maintain this unique piece of social history for future generations. Its story, so tied up with the area's industrial past, is worth telling in a display or small museum at the bottom and with some careful thought it could become not only a well-known landmark but a tourist attraction in its own right.

A brief background on the Wainhouse Tower, from my Strange Attractor essay on unusual aspects of local history -
This dark stone folly, rising some 75 metres above an overgrown cemetery, was erected by John Edward Wainhouse in the 1870s. It was meant to serve as a chimney for the dyeworks he'd inherited on Washer Lane, some 100 metres further down the valley slope. The dyeworks were sold off before construction was complete, and Wainhouse had the octagonal structure topped by an ornate observatory, reached by 369 steps winding around the chimney flue. Some reckon this was his intention all along – to build himself a platform where he could overlook the estate of a local rival. Some versions of the story say Wainhouse wanted to spy on his rival's wife. Some give his monument the name of the Tower of Spite.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Market environmentalism

The Observer has an interesting interview with James Cameron of specialist investor Climate Change Capital. This comes in the wake of the Stern report on the economics of climate change which, even if it didn't exactly tell us anything new, seems more likely to get the message across to those who are more susceptible to economic than scientific argument -

If [Cameron] and his team at CCC, which invests in building green energy facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, succeed they will, he says, 'show we can reduce emissions, and prove that money can be made from doing that'.
It sounds very grand, and this tall 44-year-old sometimes says things that sound overblown. But who doesn't when they're talking about the environment? At least he's honest. On the one hand, he says that he could change the world. On the other, he says: 'I have no interest in putting on a hair shirt. I don't want to be told I can't live well.'
Cameron's insight is that environmental damage is behavioural and the best way of changing behaviour is not by regulating people but by offering individuals the chance to win and lose through their own decisions.
'Stern is absolutely critical in terms of the necessary shift in consciousness in the upper echelons of political and business decision-making,' he says.
Excuses for inaction from politicians and businessmen exasperate him, as do those who say the UK produces only 2 per cent of global emissions, and that the developing world, particularly India and China, is not listening to Stern or anyone else. 'One persistent lie is that China and India are not part of Kyoto. They are, but their response is differentiated. They have hundreds of millions of people living on less than a dollar a day.'
He is haunted by the possibility of failure, but the fact that big money has arrived has given him confidence that he is no longer in the wilderness. He is not a boastful man, but does have an air of vindication about the compromises he has made to bring environmentalism and capitalism together.
As he puts it: 'The tree-huggers were right. We have to tip our hats to them and get on with the solution, which frankly we would not trust them to implement.'

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Emley Moor anniversary

The Yorkshire Post reports on the 50th anniversary of a regional landmark -
ON November 3, 1956 the first television transmission was made from Emley Moor to those fortunate to have a set of their own.
Today, up to five million people receive their television signals from the third tower to stand on the site in 50 years – including one which collapsed in bad weather – which dominates the Yorkshire landscape.
The Grade II-listed 1,084ft tower, the UK's tallest free-standing structure, provides television transmissions throughout the UK for channels including BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, Five, digital channels and the majority of independent radio stations.
The present tower stands a couple of miles from the West Yorkshire village of Emley and first transmitted on January 21, 1971, having been built after the previous 1,265ft tower, put up by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, collapsed on March 19, 1969 under the weight of heavy snowfall.
That one had only been put up four years earlier to improve coverage. Although it demolished a nearby chapel when it fell, fortunately nobody was injured, despite employees working at the tower at the time.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Tinsley towers - Gormley steps in

The BBC reports a notable new voice in the campaign to save 'Sheffield's iconic cooling towers' as a work of art - Antony Gormley, the artist best known for the Angel of the North up in Gateshead and the sea-gazing figures over in Crosby, and someone who knows a little about landmark art:

He said the towers were "intrinsically beautiful" and offered a very exciting vista from the motorway.
"They are to the industrial revolution what cathedrals were to the medieval world," he told the BBC.
He said the towers were "absolutely unique" in their shape and acoustic capabilities.
He thought they could be used as a concert hall or recording studio, to take full advantage of the acoustics afforded by the structures.
"I could see a choir singing specially-composed music in the centre, with the audience sitting in a circle round them," he said.
"To destroy something of this beauty is an act of vandalism."

Sadly, site-owner Eon is pressing ahead with plans for demolition -
Spokeswoman Rebecca Middleton said detailed structural survey work in the summer confirmed the towers were deteriorating.
"We have determined that now is the time to bring them down in a safe and controlled way," she said.