Category Archives: life

St. Mary and St. Margaret’s Church Heritage Weekend and Fundraising Launch

Tomorrow, on Saturday the 12th, the local Parish Church, Saint Mary and Saint Margaret’s, will be holding a ‘Heritage weekend’ and fund raising launch for the new ‘community church room’ that is planned to be built into the church.

We’re going to be presented with some of the results of the archaeological dig on the Church grounds (and Castle Bromwich hall, upon whose grounds the Church sits), hear from local historians, and get unprecedented access investigating a church which is at it’s heart almost a thousand years old! The gardens of Castle Bromwich hall are also well worth a visit, containing walled baroque gardens that are the only remaining example in the country of a formal English garden design.

If you have an interest in the Castle Bromwich and it’s history then perhaps this might be something you’d like to come along to.


  • Time: 14:00
  • Date: Saturday the 12th of September, 2009
  • Location: St. Mary and St. Margaret’s Church, Castle Bromwich, just behind Castle Bromwich Hall.

Here’s the flyer for the event:


UK innovation ranking compared to the rest of the World – why do we get so little ‘bang’ for our ‘buck’?

Back on my topic of concerns about the UK economy this article looks something which I find highly problematic, that is the UK’s spending on research and development (R&D;), against world wide spend, and then measured against world wide innovation ‘league tables’.

In the theme of trying to get all these ‘backed up’ blog posts ‘out of the door’ I’ll be keeping this as succinct as possible, avoiding my usual Lovecraftian levels of verbiage, so please excuse the change of tempo.

The UK spends a great deal on R&D;, in fact it spends around 2.5% of GDP, about the same percentage it spends on the Military and Armed Forces, which for 2007 comes out at around £54 Billion.

In terms of R&D; spend and investment in the future, innovation and science, in $B, the UK ranks 4th after Germany, Japan and the USA. There is another way of measuring this investment, which is by % of GDP, which is a good comparator, but hides the vast amounts spent on innovation.

All well and good you might think, especially if that investment brings us in to the top four benefiting from that investment, but, well, there’s your problem, the UK doesn’t come in to the top four. It doesn’t even make the top ten.

In fact the UK comes in at fourteenth in terms of the “innovation index”. I think this is pretty rum as countries with a tenth of our spend on R&D; still do much better in terms of the Innovation league tables. Now ostensible you’d be right to ask what is the “innovation index” and what does it measure, unsurprisingly it is a measure of the adoption of new technology, and the interaction between the business and science sectors (it includes measures of investment into research institutions and protection of intellectual property rights).

The UK does slightly worse on the “technology readiness index”, coming joint fifteenth. This measures the ability of the economy to adopt new technologies (it includes measures of ICT usage, the regulatory framework with regard to ICT , and the availability of new technology to business).

Now you might say that this is not a fair comparison, in that R&D; is not analogous to Innovation nor the way it is calculated nor presented or that the UK’s investment in R&D; is exhibited in other areas, such as joint work abroad and investment overseas where the end ‘innovation’ benefit is generated and calculated. And you may well be right, but the numbers are pretty definitive and hard to avoid once you’ve unearthed them.

So what is the problem? The majority of people that I speak to about the subject seem rather reticent to view the issue from the top down, because of the magnitude of the problem and effectively addressing it at a ‘macro’ level. Instead the majority of those I spoke with preferred to look at influencing a variety of ‘levers’ and mechanisms that the government might have to improve the discrepancy.

However I’m really not sure this addresses the root cause, even if such a root cause could be, or had been, identified.

From my point of view the mechanism to get money from the Government (and EU who are also big investors into the UK’s R&D; funding, followed by business) is highly complex. The number of agencies that work in the sector is high, along with the mechanism itself (i.e. at the most basic level money is divided-up amongst the research councils and funding bodies, predominately by subject and topic area, before being divided up again amongst the universities, education and research establishments, who deliver those subjects).

Another issue may well be the difference in focus in the UK in terms of R&D; to much of the World, especially compared to the USA and major EU member nations. For instance 15% of US public civil R&D; spending is on development rather than basic or applied research, whilst it is only 2.3% in the UK. It’s likely that this better alignment with business means that the investment actually gets a better return on investment.

Possible inefficiencies and complexity of the system may only be one, albeit a major one, of the issues at hand, as is focus of R&D; effort and the closeness it has with business. The other popular opinion I hear is that Research Council funding needs to much better meet genuine business needs, which suggests that the relationships between universities and enterprise can continue to be improved upon significantly.

Other items that come up are (i) clarity of Government policy and associated packages, (ii) the relative size and funding of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the need to scale up further, (iii) higher availability of business relevant skills and the need to continue to promote STEM skills, (iv) a focus on key technology ‘families’, (v) better engagment of the SME community with Universities and R&D; beyond Tax Credits and supporting and strengthening the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), and (vi) better engaging UK Business with 7th Framework Programme (FP7) perhaps by getting the UK to address the discrepancy between large businesses, SMEs and Universities where FP7 funds only up to 50% at enterprises, whilst universities and SMEs may receive 75%, possibly by ‘topping up’ funding to make it more accessible to these large companies. However I feel these seven items are minor in comparison to the three major issues above.

There seem to be a couple of threads running through these issues and I’d say that they are complexity of the funding eco-system possibly leading to inefficiency and one of R&D; investment alignment to business.

Whatever the root cause, be it one of those, or another, or more likely a mixture of some or all of these issues, ‘tweaking’ certain items without a fundamental understanding of the aforementioned root causes will likely continue to have a less dramatic effect then the UK rapidly getting anywhere near the no.4 spot in the international innovation league tables.

The End of the World?

In the future, once we’re all ensconced in our virtual reality worlds, is this the way it will all end? On February the 28th, 2009, Tabula Rasa, an MMORPG (like World of Warcraft and RuneScape) was shut down, after failing to attract enough subscribers related to the current economic downturn.

In his article “Analysis: Tabula Rasa’s Final Moments – A Firsthand Account“, Simon Carless evocatively writes:

By the afternoon, the West Coast server Hydra was the last server standing. As more and more of its citizenry logged on for the last hurrah, and foreign players from dead servers poured in to squeeze a few more hours out of the game, it became increasingly congested, buggy, and lag-ridden. The intended scenario was indeed playing out not just in the game and the fiction but as a metagame: the active duty population swelled as humanity prepared to make its final stand.

Simon’s description reminded me a little of the recent Doctor Who episode “Utopia”, where at the end of time humanity are huddling together as heat death consumes the planets they had colonised. The ‘Futurekind’ almost like NPCs, also collecting together, prior to being finally terminated.

In a doubly ironic twist of fate, ‘Tabula Rasa’ is Latin for ‘blank slate’, or rather ‘slate wiped clean’, popularised by John Locke as a rather now out of fashion philosophical thesis that individuals are born without any built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception alone (the whole ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ debate is more balanced now). It also resembles the off state of the server infrastructure that would have supported the game that presumably had it’s ‘memory’ wiped clean, prior to being redeployed to support other functionality.

Thanks to Mick Farren’s blog for bringing this to my attention.

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links for 2009-05-15

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Industry contributions to the UK economy and investment in R&D; by industry

My biggest concern about the UK economy is in two very related areas, firstly the imbalance of industry contributions to UK GDP, and secondly the imbalance of investment in innovation in those industries.

When I speak about the imbalance of industry contributions to UK GDP I’m actually talking about which industry sectors are contributing to the UK GDP.

Over the last few years the GDP of the UK has been around £1.2 to £1.3 Trillion (where 1 Trillion equates to 1,000 Billion); this is traditionally circa $2.35 Trillion for those of you who prefer dollar notation.

If we break down GDP contributions as percentages the most obvious point to be made is that Services makes up the majority at over 75% of the GDP contribution to the UK economy (and up until the credit crunch circa 40% of GDP contribution were from Financial Services alone). Manufacturing as an industry sector currently supports just 13% of the UK GDP (as a comparison the USA is circa 19% and Germany is circa 23%) and the actual amount is around £150 Billion. The rest is made up of Agriculture (hovering at 1% and just below) and ‘other’ Industry.

It occurs to me that frankly this isn’t a particularly balanced model; especially when it comes to global recessions such as the one we find our selves in now which, because of our dependence on single industry sectors, affects us so adversely. And nor is it particularly self sustaining.

I’m not alone in thinking this, Warren Buffet warned long ago that the UK’s over reliance on it’s service sector exposed the economy to a higher risk of recession, and George Soros has recently been quoted in the UK press that his concern about the recovery of the UK economy is it’s dependence on the financial services industry.

Sir John Rose, Chief Executive of Rolls-Royce, and one of the UK’s most inspiring business leaders, is vocal about the UK’s need to balance it’s industries contribution to it’s GDP, he has this to say on the subject:

“This country needs a broad portfolio of assets.” adding “There is an over dependence on financial services. If you are a one-trick pony, you have to hope that people continue to like your trick. If they stop liking it, you become pet food.” and “…the credit crisis gives a unique opportunity to start answering questions about how this country should be earning its living in the 21st century.”

You may agree or disagree, or perhaps you’d be interested in what the spread and distribution of UK GDP contributions from differing Industries should or could be, something I believe needs a certain amount of consideration and planning, something you’d imagine would be in the UK’s “Industrial Strategy”, which according to key experts, sadly, does not exist as a coherent and authoritative source. What is key to me is that we collectively recognise the imbalance and look at what it means and what our options might be, including attempting to encourage or stimulate other areas of the economy where appropriate.

All of this brings me to the second, related area, and probably the one that I find more worrying as I increasingly think about the future of the UK economy; that is the imbalance of investment in innovation across the industry sectors in the UK.

Circa 75% of all UK business Research and Development is in Manufacturing alone. Let me restate that another way to bring the point clearer. 75% of all investment in R&D;, innovation and future offerings is done in a single industry sector which contributes just 13% of the economy. Genuinely this worries me a great deal, because therefore, 87% of the economy (which is not manufacturing, and is predominantly services) is contributing just 25% of the entire amount being invested in the future. Yes that’s right, nearly 90% of the UK economy will be dependant on a quarter of the total investment in innovation. This does not look like a good investment on the future state of the economy to me. Nor does it give me a warm and fuzzy feeling when it comes to the future of non-manufacturing businesses either, and lets be clear here, the future of the service industry.

These two points could be playing off against each other of course, in that industry contributions to the economy need to be rebalanced, possibly with a larger (or even, much larger) contribution from manufacturing. And that subsequently the imbalance in terms of investment in R&D; across industry could possibly be less of a worry than I currently imagine.

However I really don’t expect for manufacturing to make up 75% of the GDP contribution anywhere in the future, and I’m still very concerned about the lack of investment in R&D; in the Services industry of the UK. I’d really like better awareness of the issue as a whole, and perhaps go so far to look for more focused stimulation from Government to encourage investment in R&D; in the Services sector.

Recently the CBI’s Innovation, Science and Technology (IST) committee have been working on a number of upcoming white papers, and I have been vocal in having the above issues brought to light in those. Thankfully I got a great of support from the other members of the IST, especially those who are working in the Services sector. I’ll let you know when the white papers I’ve mentioned are available from the CBI web site.

So in a nutshell what am I saying? Firstly let’s investigate and hopefully work towards a more balanced, recession proof economy, with a bigger contribution from high value and “just in time” manufacturing, if it is viable, and secondly let’s see more investment in R&D;, innovation and the future from the Services industry. To achieve any of this we’ll need significant support from Government departments like DBERR and DIUS, followed by the Treasury, to act as sponsors, and finally some Government assistance, whether that be legislation, stimulation, or something softer (the current favourite doing the rounds across the political parties is that of the ‘nudge’ as exemplified by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”).

Please Note: All data in this piece comes from these sources, in this order, the Economist ‘Pocket World in Figures (2009 Edition)’, the Economist magazine, the CBI, the IoD, and the BBC. Furthermore, despite manufacturing making up 13% of the UK economy, the UK is still the sixth largest manufacturer in the World (although there are some very big gaps between the economic output of the top five and the UK, and so I may very well touch on the state of the UK manufacturing industry in the future).

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DBERR’s views on the future growth of the UK economy ‘New Industry, New Jobs’

Are you concerned about the state of the UK economy in the future, because I know I am, so I’ll be exploring some of the issues being faced by the UK economy, especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering and industry contributions to the UK’s GDP in my next few articles. …..

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Thoughts on hearing that Northern Rock are to lend £14 Billion in mortgages

Just wanted to jot down a few thoughts on hearing that Northern Rock are to release £14 Billion into the UK economy via lending for mortgages.

Frankly it seems pretty obvious that this isn’t just the UK Governments method for pumping liquidity into the UK housing market, but also demonstrates a frustration with the money used to help ‘prop up’ the Financial Sector. Much of the Government bail-outs were supposed to help restart the financial institutions in question to start lending again, this plainly hasn’t happened. I think everyone, especially the UK Government, is disappointed that the money has been used to shore up the massive debts run up, as well as the short-falls exasperated by the world-wide economic downturn.

Northern Rock was the first of the big financial companies to bite the bullet and need to seek massive Government investment to stay solvent, or be nationalised, whichever you prefer.

What’s phenomenal about this apparent ‘turn of face’ given that up until today they had closed their books to new mortgage lending (in fact they had been aggressively repossessing homes across the UK), is how much the Bank had ‘closed the gap’ between it’s original debt and what it now owes; a massive two-thirds, the original level of debt when it sought Government intervention was £27 Billion and it now stands at £9 Billion.

The Shadow Treasury Minister, Greg Hands, is concerned about the dichotomy between existing Northern Rock customers, facing repossession, with all the new mortgage customers; a very valid point given that the Bank has said that it will be restructured, with new mortgages and existing mortgages managed separately, furthering any gap between the two groups.

Evidently this is not all that there is to this story and the three other questions I think we should be asking right now are:

Given that the number of homes in the UK repossessed by lenders rose last year by 54% to 40,000, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML), how much was this number contributed to by Northern Rock?

Given that the new management team at Northern Rock successfully decreased the Banks debt by £18 Billion, how much of this was done via straight forward repossessions and how much by other methods, and if replicable in an appropriate manner, can any of these alternative approaches to repossession be turned into ‘best practices’ which can be shared with the rest of the UK banking community to reduce their levels of debt too?

Given that organisations like the CBI are saying if credit isn’t available soon the recession is going to get a whole lot worse what is the Government going to do to get the other Banks and Financial Institutions lending again as soon as possible?

Castle Bromwich Hall Church Fete

Our local C of E Church, St. Mary and St. Margaret’s Church, in Castle Bromwich, just before the arrival of our new Parish Priest, Gavin Douglas, and family…

The Ken vs. Boris Show

So the ‘battle’ for Mayor of London is being called ‘the Ken vs. Boris show’.

Strange to think that in the majority of the search results I’ve generated whilst researching the subject most of them came up with ‘Ken vs. Boris’, rather than the other way around, almost as though Boris Johnson is in the stronger position of the two, both in and out of the sentence.

That Ken Livingstone has a battle on his hands this time round is without a doubt. I spend the majority of my working life in the City, and frankly I haven’t heard a good word said about him in almost ten years, when I was still at Harrods, building Harrods Online (yes, I know, pretty isn’t it, although it’s been almost eight years since I spent three ‘heady’ years there, and I expect it’s probably been re-engineered since then, although you never know, as software I engineered is still in commission after over fifteen years).

Of course the battle for the position of the Mayor of London should not be confused with that of the Lord Mayor of the City of London, which is something completely different.

Over on the BBC website they are asking the lowest common denominator question of ‘does it matter outside London ?’, and given the wholesale reliance that the UK economy has on the Finance and Trading industry centered in London, it’d be extremly hard to see how it isn’t.

That the people of London choose both the best Major for the City and it’s re-energisation, it’s imperative that they also choose someone who can help re-energise the Financial ‘Engine’ of the UK which sits at the heart of the Capital. This is especially true given the ongoing credit crisis, made even worse yesterday with the annoucment that Bear Stearns would sell massively under their expected value.

Andrew Sparrow, a journalistic political blogger over at the Guardian website, has a nice piece ‘Boris invites Ken to get on his bike ‘, which includes the following snippet, in regards to the ‘green’ agenda:

Boris, of course, was funnier. Ken, apparently, never learnt to ride a bike, and, after a question about cycling, Boris urged him to “show a lead” and learn now.

Other headlines include the Telegraph with ‘Boris Johnson prances round Ken Livingstone’, the Times with ‘It’s Horrid Ken v Chaotic Boris’, and I’ve found you can even get betting odds on the ‘competition’ along with the tag line of ‘Red Ken vs Blue Boris ‘.

Frankly it must be the Brummy from Nechells in me, but I actually thought the funniest caption ended up being the Sun’s ‘barmy Boris VS crazy Ken’.

Let’s just hope that the City gets someone who at least attempts to live up to their promises, and who can genuinely help to revitalise not just local authority politics in London, but the Financial sector too, for the sake of us all in the UK.

Goodbye Arthur C. Clarke

Farewell to another hero of mine with the demise of Arthur C. Clarke earlier today.

I have fond memories of Arthur, mainly from the ITV series ‘Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World’, and of course from the parody done by the Goodies in the episode ‘Big Foot’.

Arthur’s work was prescient, and he well understood the symbiotic relationship between Science Fiction, and that of Science, Technology, and Innovation:

I’m sure we would not have had men on the Moon if it had not been for Wells and Verne and the people who write about this and made people think about it. I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.

As a ‘retired’ table top RPGer my favourite quote of his, which I heard, I think from Paul Cooke, was:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Whilst this following quote amusingly goes very much against Okham’s Razor (which itself is a principal I like, and use, a great deal):

The truth, as always, will be far stranger.

I also like these quotes by Arthur too:

How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.

Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.

Somewhere in me is a curiosity sensor. I want to know what’s over the next hill. You know, people can live longer without food than without information. Without information, you’d go crazy.

Apparently another of his most famous works, ‘Rendevous with Rama’, is being adapted and produced as a film, and according to IMDB will be ready for release in 2009. Let’s hope so, and that it’s a fitting adaption.

He leaves the the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation to carry on the good work of promoting Science and Technology in his name.

So here’s to the man, who along with Stanley Kubrick in the adaption of 2001: A Space Odyssey, managed to change the entire World’s understanding of what ‘Space’ might sound like, especially when spaceship’s ‘dock’. Less whoosh, bang and zap, and more ‘An der schönen blauen Donau’ (also known as ‘On The Beautiful Blue Danube’ by Johann Strauss II).