Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Yule blog

A slightly menacing Santa snapped at Stuttgart Weihnachtsmarkt this last weekend.
I also liked this juxtaposition outside the Kunstmuseum.

And, for the traditionalists, some scenes from the Esslingen market:

Fröhliche Weihnachten to all!

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lessons in PR

I don't do much straight PR work, and a recent experience reminded me why.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from an old friend who now works at a small PR agency. Could I write a quick case study for one of his clients?
It seemed an easy enough job to fit in, and we agreed a fair price. The client was an ICT services sort of thing (I'm being vague to protect my friend's interests, so lets call them Company X), and wanted a profile of one of its customers showing the benefits they were getting from their wonderful system. The chosen customer had agreed to talk, and was waiting for the call.
Except that over a period of several weeks, the director at the company failed to respond to my many calls and messages asking for an interview on behalf of Company X. Maybe he was very busy. So my PR bunny chum found another customer, who had apparently also indicated he was happy to talk.
This time, I got to speak to the designated director on the second call, which isn't bad going. I explain I'm working with Company X, writing a promotional case study, and keen to hear about his company, how he's using X's products, and the benefits he's seeing.
"I'm not someone you want to talk to," he says. "They've been a bloody nightmare." A brief but heartfelt description of non-working products and non-existent support followed.
I apologise and promise to pass his concerns back to the company, and ring off before I start laughing at the daftness of it all. Hell, I might not be getting paid for the job now, but at least I got a good chortle out of it.
It seems like a fairly basic lesson in PR, really. If you're involving your clients in your own marketing efforts, make sure that they are actually happy with you. PR comes a very distant second to actually delivering on your business offer to your clients. And that, I think, is why I really don't do much straight PR work.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Arts Tower

The Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield, a modernist landmark inspired by Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building in New York.
Photo taken mainly because I was trying out a new lens - Canon 50mm f1.4 - which is proving to be a rather nice bit of kit.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

An exciting time

The latest edition of the Post-Autistic Economics Review features a couple of articles reprinted and expanded from the Financial Times.
In the first, Philip Ball (whose book Critical Mass I reviewed for the other FT) offers a painless overview of the discontents of modern economics -

It is easy to mock economic theory. Any fool can see that the world of neoclassical economics, which dominates the academic field today, is a gross caricature in which every trader or company acts in the same self-interested way with cool, omniscient rationality. The theory fails the basic requirement of a science that it can explain or predict the real world, and has evidently failed to make that world any fairer or more pleasant.
The usual defence is that you have to start somewhere. But mainstream economists no longer appear to consider their core theory to be a ‘start’ at all. The tenets of neoclassical economics are now so firmly embedded that economists who think it is time to move beyond them are cold-shouldered. These ideas have hardened into a rigid dogma, and to challenge them is to invite blank stares of incomprehension – you might as well be telling a physicist that gravity doesn’t exist.
There is no other ‘science’ in such a peculiar state, where a demonstrably false conceptual core is sustained by inertia alone. This core, appropriately known as the Citadel, remains impregnable while those inside fashion an increasingly baroque fantasy. But as Alan Kirman, a progressive economist, has said, “no amount of attention to the walls will prevent the Citadel from being empty.”

In the second, Paul Ormerod responds to the "strong criticism on the letters page" apparently attracted by Ball's piece. While he agrees with most of Ball's criticisms, he notes the contributions of researchers such as Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith (who I interviewed a few years ago) in introducing the first cracks into the old dogma -

They created, almost on their own, the discipline of experimental economics. Standard economics merely assumes that people act in a particular way. Mr Kahneman and Mr Smith tested how people really do behave.
Their conclusions are a devastating blow to the postulates of the rational decisionmaker. In general, people gather limited information, reason poorly and act intuitively rather than rationally.

Encouragingly for someone approaching the end of their advanced Economics studies, Ormerod notes:
The challenge of reconstructing economic theory virtually from scratch makes it an exciting time to be an economist. It is attracting eminent researchers from other disciplines, such as mathematical sociology, computer science and statistical physics. One from the last of these, Doyne Farmer of the Santa Fe Institute, has a model that replicates many of the subtle features of prices on the London Stock Exchange. But far from assuming that traders are rational, he postulates that they have literally zero intelligence. Yet the model works very well.
The problem, and it is a very big one, is that most economists continue to act as if very little has changed and that the rational agent postulate remains generally valid.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Student distribution

Geneticist Johnjoe McFadden writes in the Guardian on some experimental economics research which suggests that thinking about money makes people more self-sufficient but also more selfish and less sociable.

McFadden notes:
Most student allocators proposed a fairly even split, keeping an average $5.44; but students majoring in economics tended to be greedier, proposing to keep an average $6.15. Conversely, when they were on the other side of the table, the economists tended to accept less, as little as $1.70 (compared to $2.44), before throwing their arms up in outrage. It seems that studying money makes you less generous, or perhaps the discipline attracts less generous people who give less and expect less in return.

The worrying thing here is that economics students make up the largest part of subjects for economic experiments - they're the closest and most available pool for university researchers, and they're most likely to be willing to take part (especially if there's some money involved), as I did last year. But if economic students are distinct from the general population, then would this not introduce a significant bias into the whole field of experimental economics?


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Freelancing pains

Perhaps the most infuriating thing about freelancing is the irregular nature of the workflow. Basically, it seems to exhibit marked bunching behaviour - either you've got next to nowt to do for weeks on end, or you're rushing to complete four jobs at once and having to turn down desirable commissions because you just won't have the time to do them justice.

Today, for instance, I've had to turn down two potential commissions worth a healthy few grand total, because I just wouldn't be able to fit them in alongside work I've already committed to, university commitments, and all the usual Yuletide rushing about. It's always painful to turn stuff down (particularly because the profoundly post hoc nature of freelance payment means you're often at your most broke when you're busiest, and most particularly because I had to put the car in for some costly and unforeseen work today), but I'd be letting myself and my clients down more if I took a commission only to turn in rushed and bodged work.

On the upside, I've taken my first commission from a new client who found me via this blog. I know a few journalists (not least in the local NUJ) who are more or less hostile to blogs, but I think this shows their value to freelances as a way of marketing yourself and your work.

Also on a cheery note, last night we saw Northern Broadsides's excellent production of 'A Man with Two Gaffers' (aka Goldoni's 'A Servant of Two Masters', in a new translation by Blake Morrison) down at Dean Clough. Hugely entertaining stuff - if not quite a pantomime, it wasn't far off, and I mean that in the best possible way.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Betts off for urban economies

The Star also reports on Sheffield MP Clive Betts' response to a new report from the government's Communities and Local Government quango:
Academics say despite massive amounts of public funding to improve business, productivity and earnings in the north, it has only managed to make things worse.
They said no city north of Derby has an economy that is performing better than the national average, according to the report which was commissioned by the Government.
And Sheffield is in the bottom five places when it comes to recording new patents - a measure of inventions and breakthroughs in industry.
But Sheffield Attercliffe MP Clive Betts rejected the report and said business was booming.
"Go around Sheffield and look at the new private sector investment going on. There's new businesses in the Lower Don Valley, new residential accommodation in the city centre and the New Retail Quarter which are massive private investments.
"Look at companies in my constituency such as Forge Masters, which has taken on 42 new apprentices and expansions at the business park at the airport," he added.

Can't help feeling that Betts is being a wee bit daft. Wonder if he's actually read the report, 'The Competitive Economic Performance of English Cities' (downloadable here)?

(Actually, I doubt the Star journalist read it, as all the factoids are recycled from a typically idiosyncratic story in Daily Mail. By 'idiosyncratic', I mean either massively dishonest or stupid. The Mail says:
The damning report - commissioned by the Government - suggests public spending at levels once associated with the Soviet bloc have done more harm than good. It told ministers: "The overt policies followed so far and the unintended consequences of others have either failed to close this gap or actually made it worse"
which omits the crucial qualifier from the report for many decades - ie, the problem long predates the current Labour government, contrary to the Mail's implication. The problem is lack of investment, particularly from the private sector, not too much public investment. Utter bullshit from the Mail, and sloppy idle journalism from the Star.)

The report itself is a solid investigation into various aspects of city and regional economic development, with a wealth of info and ideas for anyone interested in such (which we all are, right?), and touching on a lot of issues I've written about previously. The report takes Sheffield as a case study alongside Cambridge, Derby and London. While it's not beyond criticism, the stats which Betts objects to are fairly unarguable, even if the brief summaries given in the Star story are less than entirely helpful (the report said 31 out of 56 cities lagged behind the rest, apparently. What?)

The report's introduction notes:
Sheffield provides an example of a traditional manufacturing based economy that has suffered from de-industrialisation. Although there have been some improvements over the last ten years, the city’s economy is still locked into past economic forms that can be seen as hindering its competitive advantage.
The local economy has traditionally been dominated by manufacturing industry, specialised in a restricted number of sectors, primarily related to the steel industry. [...] there is still a dominance of manufacturing industry, and some local opposition to diversification, identified as a force for continuity. Other barriers identified include few entrepreneurs to take forward ideas, the limited markets served by the city, and a lack of willingness on the part of the private sector to push for diversification.
[...] there are still concerns over the predominance of a risk-averse culture within Sheffield, and a lack of entrepreneurial skills which may hamper the development of this competitiveness driver and so prevent upgrading of the urban economy in the future.
As a result of these issues the data for Sheffield’s key economic indicators paint a difficult picture in terms of competitiveness and economic performance. Sheffield’s industrial heritage has left deep scars in terms of the economic structure of the city, which has been slow to adjust to new economic and technological forms. Local strategic decision-makers are keen to encourage new institutional and economic forms. Despite this the history of the pathdependent nature of the local economy cannot be ignored, and the fortunes of the city cannot be turned around overnight.

which seems fair to me.

The section specifically looking at Sheffield, as a case study of a 'de-industrialised' city, introduces a number of initiatives I've written at length about before, such as AMP, Finningley and the city centre redevelopment. A comment about the fine line between Sheffield's much-praised 'villagey' feel and a parochial susceptibility to negativity sounds about right, as does this about the city's manufacturing elders:
It should also be noted that in a city such as Sheffield, where manufacturing industry has traditionally been strong, the industrial elites associated with traditional manufacturing sectors are perceived as having a powerful role and considerable influence, particularly through the Cutler’s Company. Respondents suggested that their culture and background do not always sit harmoniously with the innovating new sectors that are contributing to drive the city’s economy; this can be a constraining factor for innovation in the city, as a force making for continuity, and not embracing change.

Overall, it's realistic and pretty positive about Sheff and its prospects. There's still plenty to be done, but the report is in no way as negative as Betts' soundbites would suggest.

More generally, the report points to the lopsided distribution of venture capital firm head offices (243 in London, 42 in Manc, 36 in Leeds and 35 in Brum, apparently) as an indicator of the failings of the knowledge-based economy outside the South East: There is therefore a distinct regional and urban dimension to the equity gap, in those small and new firms in the regions and cities outside the [South East] that find it difficult to access finance for investment, including venture capital. However, as I've written previously, there's mounting evidence that the equity gap no longer persists. (As I explore in a recent article in Corporate Financier, the gap may now be in corporate finance advice rather than funding per se.)

There's also some interesting findings re economic health and general quality of life, which run counter to some claims:
The concept of quality of life is a much abused idea. It has often been used for political purposes with scant regard to its clear and consistent definition or the available empirical research that seeks to clarify what it means to citizens. All too often it has become one of the promotional tools employed by city agencies with the main aim of making their particular location attractive to global capital [...but] there is no necessary connection between the standard of living enjoyed by residents of a city and the economic performance of its economy.

Cambridge, meanwhile, is generally seen as an exemplar of a knowledge-based cluster, but it faces some of the same problems (which I wrote about a few years ago here) as Sheffield -
Tough containment policies are seen to limit potential investment and economic growth in both Cambridge and Sheffield. In both cases restrictions on the land and building available for high-tech and other forms of knowledge intensive industries has hampered their development. This has restricted rates of change.

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Exploring Jessops

The Sheffield Star is today raising controversy about 'urban explorers' entering local landmarks including Jessops Hospital, where I was born. To be fair, it's a pretty balanced piece, with the expected condemnatory quotes balanced by a bit of context from the explorer chaps:
One Sheffield explorer, who did not wish to be named but was on the visits to both Sheffield Cathedral and Jessop Hospital, said: "We normally visit places which are going to disappear and are a part of our history.
"The cathedral was a bit different. It was a unique opportunity to see the city centre from a different perspective. We never damage anything. Breaking in is something we would not do. Our motto is 'take only photographs and leave only footprints'."
"There is an element of risk but we take all precautions we can. It's worth it to see places which are so important and could be lost."

Not the sort of behaviour one should publicly condone, of course - but the pictures are intriguing. The explorer, DBS, notes: You'll find it tough to get in though if your waist is more than 30" and you can't shimmy drainpipes. I suspect I won't be joining them, then.

Latest on Sheffield University's plans for the site -
This next phase will see us refurbish and bring back to life the historic Victorian Wing of the old Jessop hospital building and build a landmark new building on the west corner of the same site.
These developments will provide new homes for the departments of Music, English, Law and History, and provide outstanding facilities for staff and students across the University.
The department of Music will move into the Victorian wing, once the careful refurbishment of this Grade II listed building is complete, whilst English, Law and History will all move into the new landmark building on the west corner of the site.
The new landmark building has been designed by Sauerbruch Hutton, award winning architects renowned for delivering iconic buildings, with environmental sustainability as a top priority. Sauerbruch Hutton won the contract as part of an internal architecture competition held by the University last year.

More here.

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