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‘Free’ photo recovery software that isn’t free 20 September 2019

Posted by cooperatoby in journalism.
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I wanted to undelete some photos from my camera, so searched for software to let me do that. I discovered that several programs that advertise themselves as ‘free’ actually aren’t. Sure, they are free to download, but then play cunningly on the sunk cost fallacy: they subject you to an interminable wait while they laboriously scan your files, and then you find the tempting ‘Recover’ button doesn’t work until you pay up.
I found this to be true with Stellar Photo Recovery, Disc Drill and even MiniPower Data Recovery Free, which is recommended by TechRadar. Hurray for Recuva, which does what it says on the box – and more or less instantaneously too.

Thirst for learning 12 September 2019

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Why don’t government-run archaeological sites in Greece have cafés?

This summer we made a tour of some of the most venerated ancient sites in Greece – Delphi, Olympia, Nestor’s Palace near Pilos and Mistras near Sparti – and noticed a paradoxical common denominator: they lack catering facilities. At Delphi the museum and ticket complex includes a café – but it is closed (and the drink vending machines don’t work). At Olympia, a building that looks exactly like a possible cafe stands derelict. Even the brand-new Acropolis Museum in Athens does indeed have an impressive restaurant – which in inaccessible because you have to make a reservation. This is no joke when temperatures are in the high 30s.

Contrast this with some of the privately-managed cultural attractions: the Benaki Museum in Athens is surmounted by a marvellous cafe with air contitioning and panoramic views from its terrace. Even the Diros caves in faraway Mani (one of the cooler experiences one could wish for in the height of summer) has a café at the entrance.

We posited a number of possible causes for this:
– a highbrow attitude from the ministry that seeks to present ancient cultural artifacts in some sort of ‘pure’ state, to be studied high-mindedly and not cluttered up by commercialism;
– the recent austerity forced on the government means that they have had to lay off ancillary staff such as caterers;
– the local chambers of commerce have objected to ‘unfair’ competition.

But these don’t stack up:
– the key sites have well-designed modern museums, into or near which it is perfectly possible to build a café without trespassing on the remains;
– reopening the cafés would provide both local jobs and boost the ministry’s coffers (by the way the entrance fees are absurdly cheap by northern European standards – especially for seniors);
– at Delphi and Olympia the eponymous villages are some way from the sites, and so cannot satisfy immediate demand for a cold drink.

The absurdity of the situation is shown by the fact that at Olympia the Red Cross of all people has erected a tent to dispense bottles of water to thirsty visitors!

So we are left with a contradiction: the mainstay of the economy (tourists bring in 21% of national income) is left frustrated, while funds that could stimulate local economies and pay for more excavations go untapped.

Walk-on part 14 April 2019

Posted by cooperatoby in EU.
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Toby at Pro Europa rally 10 Apr 19

I have just been amazed (and pleased) to find this picture of me in the Guardian, holding an anti-Brexit placard outside the Berlaymont. The photo illustrates this article: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/10/brexit-delay-will-squeeze-transition-period-negotiations?CMP=share_btn_tw

The occasion was a Pro Europa rally chaired by Nick Crosby and featuring speeches by Gina Miller (by video), Richard Corbett and Molly Scott-Cato among others. It cheered me up no end: Brexit has run out of road, the momentum is with us, pro-Europeans are mobilised as never before, and we are going to win the coming European elections!

Glorious British Transport Films 10 May 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in transport.
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Unloading cement, from ‘They Take the High Road’

What better way to spend Ascension Day than watch some British Transport Films. They bring back the England of my childhood and evoke the sterling virtues of skilled labour and teamwork in an optimistic mood of societal reconstruction. They take for granted that work is a positive, dignified and collective thing, and are marvellous travelogues to boot.

Lorries:

• In Dodging the Column (1952) EW Rudd hauls a 132ft-long distillation column from Greenwich to Grangemouth up the A6 using two Scamell tractors. Occasionally they have to unhitch the rear bogie and turn it by hand, and put plates over the manhole covers. At Stoke they have to dig up a gatepost and winch a tree out of the way. It’s amazing how narrow the roads were then. At Shap, the A6 climbs 2,000’ in 3 miles. The cockney humour is fun and in keeping with its spirit – and there are London trams skittling past.

They Take the High Road is volume 5 of the BTF’s Off the Beaten Track series. It’s a funny little film about a team of 4 lorry drivers who live in a carriage in a siding at Killín station, and make two daily tips 22 miles up Glen Lyon to deliver 7.5 tons of cement to build Giorra dam on Loch an Daimh, just NE of Loch Lyon in Perthshire. The context is an integrated multimodal transport system and the moral is the importance of good maintenance. It’s lovely watching the drivers in the potty little white-painted wooden cabs of their cherry-red ERF and AEC flatbeds.

Giant Load shows Pickfords taking a 168-ton transformer from Hayes to Iver on a 12-axle demountable swan neck trailer, with 3 tractors.

Buses:

Aldenham Works Routemaster London Transport, which seems to have been unofficially put together, albeit from official footage. Aldenham was originally built as a tube depot for the never-built extension to the Northern Line, and during WWII was used to make planes. From 1956-1985 it overhauled RTs and Routemasters every 4 years. The bodies were taken off the chassis but took longer to overhaul, so were remounted on a different chassis afterwards. The site is now a business park.

A Journey by a London Bus (8 mins, 1950) by the Colonial Film Unit (sic) shows two ‘African students’ catching the bus back from a walk ‘in the fields’, on the days when London was the largest city in the world. They know it runs on a route, will be punctual, and that enjoying the journey is a matter of ‘friendly co-operation’ – no need to push or jostle. Schoolchildren sense that Africans like them, and friendly hands help a disabled person aboard. Children cross the road at a crossing – with Belisha beacons but without zebra stripes – and the driver gives the slowing down sign to stop for them. ‘Four long miles for fivepence.’ False-sounding but priceless.

Trains:

Wash and Brush Up (25 mins, 1953) every couple of weeks steam engines get their boilers cleaned out, which takes about 17 hours. There’s a whole succession of different quaintly (I should say exactly) named men who follow on in succession: a fire-dropper, the boilersmith and his mate, a cooler-down, some washers-out and a fire-raiser. They riddle out the grate just like in a household fire. One man has to wriggle inside the fire¬box to scrub it out. The message, delivered in appropriately stirring tones, is teamwork. Marvellously appropriate terms: the inspector taps things with his hammer to see if they “ring true”.

Work in Progress: a trip round the country looking at various rebuilding jobs: digging the new Woodhead tunnel, hump shunting at Whitemoor, Cambridge with walkie-talkie control of the shunter – which looked pretty dangerous, involving a man running along-side the trucks rolling at 15 mph to brake them. Scheduled lorry services in the Mull of Kintyre. Buses in Bristol and the channel ferry. Again the message is an integrated transport system serving the country’s economy. The whole is graphically shown by a 3D relief model of Great Britain about 15’ long, with the mountains towering up and making connecting it up look like a pretty difficult job. “No part of Britain is self-sufficient…” it starts.

Old Sam the Signalman is a homily about level crossing safety, acted unconvincingly by the judge from Porridge.

Spotlight on the Night Mail (1948) is a pale reflection of the 1936 original, with an annoying American twang to the voiceover, reversed shots, repeated sequences and no continu¬ity. But it does show the mailbags bouncing into the ‘apparatus coaches’ nicely – that’s what it seems to be called – just the ‘apparatus’ – and at the end some Aberdeen trams.

The Way to the Sea, another 1936 Britten-Auden collaboration celebrating the 1935 electrification of the Waterloo–Portsmouth line. There’s some poetic scriptwriting: following a sequence on power transmission we set off: “A signal box; a power station. We pass the areas of greatest congestion, the homes of those who have least power of choice.” And the amazing list of reasons people went on holiday on the Isle of Wight: “to eat out of doors, to exchange confidences with strangers, the opportunity to be admired.”

These last to are both now seemingly offline.

Phone Co-op bows out, not with a bang but a whimper 1 May 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in cooperative, Social enterprise.
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“And so we had to destroy the co-op in order to save it” was what came to mind after the special general meeting of the Phone Co-op in Sheffield last Saturday.

Ben Reid, Midcounties CEO, addresses the Phone Co-op SGM

It was a remarkably unanimous act of collective suicide, with no fewer than 202 of the 223 votes cast in favour of the merger with Midcounties. It was a good result, but a sad one. The Phone Co-op has grown and excelled for 20 years, but now finds itself out of its depth.
The debate did not start well, with the first intervention being an all-too-minutely detailed account of billing problems at Co-operative Energy 3 years ago – until the speaker was shouted down by members impatient to get to the nitty gritty. But the nitty gritty never really came. I had been secretly spoiling for a showdown, a revelation of the folly of the outgoing board and interim CEO. But the crunch never really came, thanks to the sure-footed leadership of the new chair, Jane Watts (the old chair was detained for family reasons).
The meeting quite rightly asked for the results of the vote on the merger motion to be announced before the second vote was taken, and the 92% majority surprised me (and cost me a pint in a side-bet). I began to feel a little out of control, as if forces beyond my ken had been orchestrating this all along. We had not really got to the bottom of why and how our strategy had gone wrong, or even if it had. Maybe it was meant to be this way.
I regretted the absence of constitutional stickler Richard Bickle – but his expertise was not needed, since the meeting was a procedural marvel, with neatly numbered and perforated voting slips (and even a spare in case of an unexpected ballot) all superintended by Emma Laycock of Co-ops UK, who is standing in as interim society secretary.

A bit more clarity on the growth strategy

The second vote, to approve the growth strategy, was paradoxical. New CEO Nick Thompson said that the board had presented it again because it was “judicious and considered” and hadn’t been properly explained at the AGM in February. But what we got was the same strategy we had criticised first time round – and with very little elaboration. We had none of the risk analysis that Simon Blackley’s motion had called for, and if anything fewer figures. According to Nick Thompson, the investment, which will lead to a £700,000 loss this year, is covered by guaranteed contractual revenues, and to succeed we only have to reach 486 of the 53,000 target business customers. The ‘green shoots’ are already showing. As for risks related to the merger, it seems probable that those brought out in debate – drop in member involvement, less personal service, staff terms and conditions – have been addressed in the heads of agreement between the two co-operatives.
The good point about discussing the strategy again is that it is forward-looking. It balanced the agenda and put the merger into context. Otherwise we might have felt we were at a burial service. It can be argued that Midcounties will find it a helpful starting point, but it can also be said that it was precisely this strategy that precipitated the co-op into the loss of its independence. Ultimately the debate was futile since the board of Midcounties will have to take its own view on what path to take.

Hobson’s choice – but a good choice

The merger is something of a Hobson’s choice. If we did not merge, what would have happened? Probably we would have struggled on for a few more years before running out of cash and merging anyway – if Midcounties wanted us by that stage. So we voted it through, albeit with a significant dissenting minority – the tally was 136 in favour but with 50 against (73%).
Anyway the members followed the board’s advice, as helpfully set out in a letter mailed out just beforehand. The growth strategy has a much higher chance of success given the potential to cross-sell telecoms services to energy customers and vice versa. As for governance, Midcounties plans to enlarge its current Energy Panel into a Utilities Panel, on which two ex-Phone Co-op board members will sit – presumably two of the more recently elected ones. And of course by a supreme irony Vivian Woodell, the Phone Co-op’s founder, is a vice-president of Midcounties.
All that remains is a confirmatory vote, on a simple majority, to take place after the Midcounties AGM in Droitwich on 12th May. And that will presumably be a shoo-in.
The result is a good one for staff, for customers, and for the co-operative movement as a whole. Ultimately, we did what we had to do efficiently and with little drama – and it was precisely this lack of drama that left me with a sense of anticlimax.

For a more balanced report of the SGM see Miles Hadfield’s article in Co-op News.

A surfeit of support for migrant entrepreneurs? 1 May 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in Migrant entrepreneurship.
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Are there too many projects competing for the attention of organisations supporting migrant business?

Sara, Lale Golesorkhi, Beslan Karatay and Robert Seko with Farid Bidardel of Social Impact

We have an interesting problem in EMEN, the European Migrant Entrepreneurship Network. We have set up 3 communities of practice (CoPs) on topics key to supporting migrant businesses – coaching and mentoring; access to finance; and professionalisation and diversity management. But we’re having trouble recruiting members. We drew 50 people to our first conference in Munich on 23-24 April, but we’d aimed at 100. It’s early days yet – we’ve only just held our first conference – and I’m sure things will come right as we gain momentum. Our concrete products will draw in participants, and this will feed more products, and so on in a virtuous circle.
But right now it’s looking as if we’ve an oversupply of helpful projects. The Commission is supporting 12 new ones, and there are others in Erasmus+. We’re trying to ensure synergies via the migrent-agenda shared calendar.
However in the finance field at least, it seems that although everybody agrees it’s a vital topic, they are too busy doing their thing to talk about it with their peers. Discussing it in Munich, we came up with the idea that we are targeting the wrong people. Of course we’ve been contacting the people at the top of their organisations, and they are typically submerged under a flood of potentially interesting invitations. Maybe the people we need are at the middle levels of their organisations, the sort of people who would really benefit from discussing their operational problems and solutions with others in the same boat.
I very much enjoyed our event, and the two CoP sessions worked well. We are now looking for chances to stage ‘piggyback’ workshops on the fringes of other relevant migrant entrepreneurship events, to ‘warm up’ the relationships at their core.

Support for WISEs is a profit in disguise 25 March 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise.
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The Flemish government is wise to invest in WISEs (work integration social enterprises). Each disadvantaged person employed creates a benefit of €12,228 per person per year. This means the government makes a 52.6% return on its investment.

Social jobs (sociale werkplaatsen) is a Flemish policy that employs nearly 10,000 people in activities including catering, gardening, logistics, bicycle repair, cleaning, ironing, energy efficiency – and recycling.

The ESF Social Economy Thematic Network went to in Vilvoorde, just north of Brussels, last Thursday, to visit one of these recycling businesses, Televil, and discovered how cost-effective work integration social enterprises (WISEs) are.

Altogether, Flanders is covered by 141 Kringwinkel second-hand shops, which collectively turn over €51m per year. They collect 73,000 tons of refuse a year, and manage to reuse 32,000 tons of it. This work employs 5,423 people, of whom 85% are disadvantaged. 57% of their turnover comes from sales, with the remaining 43% coming in the form of subsidy. But this subsidy is really a profit in disguise.

A very illuminating cost-benefit analysis shows how society gains from employing disadvantaged people in recycling. Each worker employed brings a benefit of €12,228 a year. The benefits break down as follows:

    • €3,793 to the government, because unemployment benefits saved and taxes paid exceed the support costs (a return on investment of 52.6%%)
    • €5,350 to society, through the added value of the work done
    • €3,085 to the individual, because wages less the cost of going to work are greater than unemployment benefit foregone

The following table gives a fuller analysis:

Further information:
Download Samen Sociaal Tewerkstelling’s Portfolio 2018

We need EQUAL+ 22 February 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in social innovation.
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At the Investing in People – the Way Forward conference in Sofia last week, it fell to me to revive our memories of the EQUAL programme, which from 2002-2008 engaged 20,000 organisations in innovation through transnational cooperation. It was cleverly designed to build partnerships within countries – e.g. between local authorities, research institutions and cooperatives – which then carried out projects with partners abroad, to test new solutions to employment and social problems. There was also an obligatory ‘mainstreaming’ phase to embed the results in policy and practice.

Here’s my presentation.

Asked whether EQUAL was too complicated, I said the ESF is not about spending money, it is about spending money intelligently. It is precisely the methodological support, analysis and dissemination that made the difference. And it did make a difference: many of the partnerships built during EQUAL are still alive today. One key outcome was the invention of a policy on inclusive entrepreneurship (see COPIE), which simply did not exist before.

There is grassroots demand for transnational cooperation, as is shown by the over 100 people who have registered for the ESF-TP’s Partner Search Forum in Warsaw next month.

Simplification – the answer to everything

It should not be beyond the wit of ESF policy-makers to use our new simplified rules to recreate an ‘EQUAL+‘ programme for the 2020-17 period. Using lump sums and standard costs cuts out so much of the paperwork and allows managers to concentrate on results. Flanders does this, preserving the spirit of EQUAL.

Aside from work, I remember Sofia for Wilkinson & Pickett’s presentation on The Spirit Level, the snow-capped massif of the Vitosha overlooking the city, the ruins of roman Serdica under the town centre streets, and the ornate art nouveau Balkan Hotel where we dined as ecologists demonstrated outside.

Phone Co-op members demand clear limits to risk 6 February 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in cooperative, Social enterprise.
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I am now eagerly awaiting the decision of the Phone Co-op board following the decisions of the AGM last Saturday in Sheffield. The meeting, which was attended by 153 people – about 15 of whom were not members – voted overwhelmingly to support two motions critical of the co-op’s new growth strategy and asking for greater transparency and care with the members’ investment.

Overall the experience of the AGM was very pleasant: a convenient venue right opposite Sheffield station, a copious lunch served in an airy atrium, and a lecture theatre fitted with electronic voting equipment.

Even better were the two guest presentations: the first from Jean-Paul Flintoff introducing the 1 Million Conversations campaign. “A transformative conversation may only take five minutes,” he said, brandishing a mug designed to stimulate exactly such talk. I was disappointed not to pick up one of those mugs myself – I’m sure they’ll become collectors’ items. The second presentation was by Vivian Woodell (ex-CEO) and Dame Glenys Thornton on the plans of the newly-established Phone Co-op Foundation.

The meat of the meeting was however more serious, and concerned the whole culture and strategy of the co-operative.

Part of the solution to inequality?

I moved the first motion, which noted the apparent doubling of pay differentials to a ratio of 10 to 1. I alluded to my previous jobs where pay was much more equal – above all at Suma, which now has 162 workers and has practised equal pay for upwards of 40 years. I mentioned Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 book The Spirit Level, which correlates income inequality with a host of social ills from obesity to imprisonment. I said how much I admired the Phone Co-op’s balanced model of development, the way it cares for members, employees and the environment, and the impressive contribution it makes to the co-operative movement. “It is indeed the inspiring ‘better model for business and the economy’ that it claims to be,” I said. I called on the board to continue their commitment to honest and open communication about recruitment – and only 2 members disagreed with that, while 89 supported the motion.

The second motion was moved by Simon Blackley, who chaired the co-op for the first nine years of its life. The motion queried the ‘dash for growth’ strategy that had been briefly set out in the annual report. While welcoming growth, he felt that the upside of the plan was unrealistically ambitious, while the downside was downplayed. That downside has already absorbed a quarter of the co-op’s reserves of ₤1m, and risks eating into the member’s share capital of ₤7m. Seeing as this capital is withdrawable, retaining the members’ trust in the liquidity of the co-op is paramount.

A credible plan?

Interim CEO Peter Murley had already given much greater detail on the new growth strategy he has masterminded since his appointment in the middle of last year. His starting point is that the co-op is “A telecoms business with a co-operative USP, not a co-operative with a telecoms USP”. He believes that the co-op has underinvested in systems as well as in people, and that it must achieve critical mass or wither on the vine. This means achieving a sixfold increase in customers and targeting the business market, which is growing four times faster than sales to individuals. This turnround requires the co-op to sustain losses of ₤2.3m before reaping the reward of much higher profits.

All business plans follow this curve, so the question is whether it is a credible projection – and whether it is fair to risk the members’ investments without a more inclusive debate. In the 3 hours at our disposal, and even by overrunning for ¾ of an hour, debate had to be curtailed. But at the vote, 79 members supported the motion, with 12 against. Some members had had to leave by then, and at least one, attending by internet, reports that he could not vote.

These two reverses leave the board, and the new permanent CEO Nick Thompson, who takes up his post on 19th February, with a tough nut to crack. One solution proposed was that the coop could issue a separate class of shares to fund this investment. Then members would be clear about the risk they are sharing. I for one would buy some.

Video of the AGM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOw0qFOk3d0 (I am on at 2:44:40)

Community wealth building through anchor institutions 3 October 2017

Posted by cooperatoby in cooperative, social economy, Social enterprise.
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A report to the British Labour Party analyses the characteristics of different forms of ownership of businesses – co-operative, employee-owned, local, municipal and national. It proposes the creation of ‘Anchor Institutions’ to promote local economic development.

Download Alternative Models of Ownership at: http://www.labour.org.uk/page/-/PDFs/9472_Alternative%20Models%20of%20Ownership%20all_v4.pdf

Further information:
A description of the work on community wealth building developed in Preston in north-West England, as part of the URBACT ‘Procure’ partnership:

Community Wealth Building through Anchor Institutions, Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) can be downloaded at: https://cles.org.uk/our-work/publications/community-wealth-building-through-anchor-institutions/

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