"Real Artists Ship"

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for November, 2011


Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Components of large public sector organisations usually have dull-but-explanatory names for their sub-units: the Department of X, the Y Office. Sometimes, though, particular parts have a slicker sub-brand. This is typical of estates and hospitality units; names such as Kent Hospitality, Edinburgh First and ConferenceHertfordshire (complete with go-faster-CamelCaps).

Presumably the motivation for these is so that, when the need arises, they can elide away the fact that they are part of some scummy university and charge as if they were some rapacious private company. An external customer might expect to benefit from the public subsidy afforded to universities if booking something from the Accommodation Department of the University of Rummidge; the slickly-branded RummConf can get away with a much slicker deal.

Yet, such organisations serve two audiences—always a tricksy proposition. Many people within the organisation fail to understand that these branded sub-units are actually a part of the organisation. Instead, the impression is that that part of the organisation has been hived off to a private profit-making organisation. As such, problems evoke a much stronger negative response from internal clients, who see the sub-unit as some incompetent external body obsessed with profit and completely un-obsessed with offering a service.

Within universities, academic units are much more uniformly branded. Some have a befuddling mixture of Schools, Institutes, Centres and Departments all describing academic units of roughly the same level of granularity, but this has mostly been ironed out. However, in a dynamic organisation, this cannot hold for long: as an example, the University of Edinburgh only a few years ago adopted a clear “Colleges and Schools” nomenclature, only for the merger with Edinburgh College of Art to break the scheme by having a School-level unit called a College.

This example illustrates another feature of the naming of academic units. Typically, when there is a uniformisation of names, a few units will be allowed to break the model: a “Business School”, “Law School” or “College of Art”. The argument here is always a historical/sector uniformity one: everywhere else is called a “Business School”, we’d look absurdly pedantic to call ourselves a “School of Business”. This is reasonable, but can sometimes lead to prospective students distinguishing the differently-named unit in a negative way rather than a positive one: I’ve certainly overheard students on open days asking if the business school was a “proper part of the University”.

Interestingly, an argument for creating an off-model name based on some more future-focused proposition wouldn’t fly. Proposing to be the first “e-School” in the world, or whatever trendyism applied at the time, wouldn’t go anywhere. Perhaps this is a good thing—it probably saves us from the equivalent of naff individual-level titles like “Imagination Engineer”.

December Birthday

Monday, November 28th, 2011

A while ago, whilst looking at the card stall on Huddersfield market, I came across December Birthday cards for the first time:

"Happy December Birthday" card

The message in them is a joint Christmas/birthday message, an example being: “This message brings two wishes especially for you; Have a very merry Christmas and a happy Birthday, too”.

Cheapass getout or pragmatic response to circumstance? As someone with a birthday in July, I avoid this completely!

Gove likes Beyoncé Really

Monday, November 28th, 2011

It is interesting that, in a recent speech, Michael Gove dissed Gordon Brown’s professed liking of the Arctic Monkeys as “teenage” taste. It was Gove who, reviewing on The Review Show started to make politicians look culturally engaged in a contemporary way, with his positive comments about a wide range of both “high” and “low” culture performances—he seemed to show a genuine appreciation of a breadth of culture.

Of course, speeches are not written by people who speak them, and I am sure that this was just a bit of political-machine posturing to try and appear serious in (supposedly) crisis-ridden times. But, this seems a posture that is wide-of-the-mark; once again, politicians, in trying to be serious, end up looking like wonkish obsessives who are out of touch not just with “da yoof” but with serious people in middle age.

Variations on Folk Sayings (11)

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

“He’s one buttock short of a full moon.”

Rates of Exchange

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Current talk about the Euro makes me wonder about what will happen to the notion of a country belonging to a currency system in the next century or two. At present, we see a change in the currency system as being a huge shift—something that might happen at some point as part of a long-term political realignment, as with the introduction of the Euro, but which we wouldn’t imagine happening again in our lifetimes.

I wonder if, in the longer run, we will see a much more flexible approach to this. If currency becomes much less dependent on physical notes and coins, it becomes much easier for a government to swap out into a different currency system. Perhaps this might be something that is done regularly as part of economic planning: a number of worldwide currency systems could exist, with various criteria for entry, and countries enter and leave these systems according to their economic status and planning, and have the option of returning to a local currency for a while if none of these international systems work for them at that point.

Is this plausible? I don’t know enough economics to know whether this is at all a meaningful proposition.

Entrepreneurship and the Fetishisation of Failure

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

The amount of successful experience required before a practitioner can regard themselves as basically accomplished varies vastly from field to field. A professor needs to have published a few dozen papers, an actor taken on a few dozen roles, before they are regarded as established. Sure, there is the occasional exception—the brilliant theorem proven in a PhD thesis, the definitive performance given by a 20-year old—but, for most people, there is room enough for a few apprentice-works followed by a track record of decent achievement.

Other areas require fewer individual projects before the practitioner is regarded as basically successful. A novelist who has published a couple of books is regarded as part of the mainstream, a parent who has brought up a couple of children isn’t regarded as an amateur. This is largely due to the scale of these achievements—doing them a couple of times takes a lot of time, and the number of people who have a track-record of 50 novels or 20 children is rare and regarded as somewhat freakish.

One area where this reaches its apogee is in entrepreneurship. I recently went to a—very good—talk on entrepreneurship by someone whose track record was two failed businesses and a current business that was struggling to get off the ground. Are there any other areas where such a track record would be considered enough for people to come and hear you speak?

There is almost a fetishisation of failure in the entrepreneurship culture. Talks on the subject often include something along the lines of “anyone who hasn’t had a couple of failed businesses isn’t a proper entrepreneur”. There is substance to this—statistics are regularly trotted out that some large percent of businesses fail within some small number of months—so, the point isn’t an irrelevant one. Yet, I worry about the consequences.

In areas where failure is small in impact, being upbeat about early failure is unproblematic. When I was learning to juggle, I was told that “a drop is a sign of progress”, with the implication that I should be pushing harder to do more complex moves and not always stay conservatively within my current capabilities. Similarly, I try to reassure PhD students that a rejected paper is fine. I am sure that the same is true in many other areas: there are many stories of novelists or scriptwriters figuratively, or perhaps literally, wallpapering their houses with rejection slips.

However, in these areas the consequences of failure are minor. A novelist can submit their book to another publisher, an actor can attend another audition. Note that this doesn’t always correlate to the scale of the work created: a novel, once written, can readily be touted round a dozen publishers. But in entrepreneurship the cost of failure can be large.

This is where there might be a class bias in entrepreneurship education. Perhaps the talk of failure isn’t offputting to the potential entrepreneur from a financially secure background—the worse that can happen is a slightly embarassing cap-in-hand return to family for support. Whilst, for the financially insecure, the risk of “having a go” at a business is potentially threatening to that person’s financial and personal stability for many years afterwards.

What could entrepreneurship education do about this? This is a difficult question. We would not want to downplay the potential risk of failure, as it is real and there is little in the way of definitive guidance as to how to prevent it. Perhaps more advice could be given as to how to isolate the business risks from personal risks; after all, a business failure need not lead to lead to personal financial ruin if the business is set up in the correct way. What other ideas might there be to encourage a wider range of people into starting innovative and exciting businesses?

Handling of a University Press Release

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Here is an interesting example of how the media handles a University press release:

It appears clear from the content that this came from some kind of media release put out by one of the universities or the funding council involved, with the intention of gathering positive publicity as well as engaging the public about the topic.

It looks as though the last four paragraphs are taken word-for-word from the release; they are positive in tone and informative. However, a spin has been put on them by the headline and the opening paragraph. The words “handed” and “costs” have a somewhat pejorative spin to them—there is a tone of this costing an excessive amount of money.

This mark an interesting divide between the academics’ view of this money and the public’s. In academia, having a large-value project (this isn’t a very large one) is seen as a validation, that people with influence in the field trust you with a project of that scale. Here, though, it is being touted as a cost: “What are we going to get with this money? Why should this “handout” have been made? Why does a poll cost so much?”

A Cut Too Far?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

A sign of the desperate financial straits we are in…

Treasury to close loo...