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Perhaps one shouldn’t read too much into models 6 May 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Brussels.
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Derailed mini-ThalysWe visited Mini-Europe the other week (see photo album), a temptation I’ve denied myself for two decades that was finally made inevitable by the visit to Brussels of my two step-grandsons Tijme and Siem (along with their parents Roos and Michiel of course). It was a now-or-never decision, given the rumours that the attraction is to close.
Mini-Europe's entirely ineffectual fireboats
I enjoyed the fine architectural models and I loved the jokes: Don Quixote plods along a path in La Mancha; in a nearby lake three dolphins leap, and nearby a diver is pursued to the end of time by a shark – the boys love sharks. Their favourite though was the ‘fire at the oil terminal’ scenario in which a tank goes up in flames and is attended by two fireboats drawn by underwater cables. These squirt water in entirely the wrong direction – and the fire obediently goes out anyway. Unfortunately Vesuvius waited till we were leaving before it exploded.
There are a number of entertaining sideshows which on that Sunday morning were uncrowded: you can pilot radio-controlled boats, help a gendarme to catch a robber, and compose a customised electronic postcard to e-mail to your friends
Mini-Europe mirrors the rise and fall of Europe’s self-confidence – the early EU countries are represented in force – and so is fractious Britain – and the high point of European optimism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, is enacted before one’s very eyes (thankfully the famous Brezhnev-Honecker kiss is not animated). More recently, the obligation to include each new EU member state seems to have grown too onerous – Malta is represented rather minimally by a prehistoric stone circle.
Symbolic derailment?
And the park is showing its age. Nothing is left of some exhibits (Pisa cathedral, what I imagine was an Alpine cable-car) but a ghostly impression, so it seem that the owners have decided that maintaining them is no longer worth the candle – although the first building that greets one is the renovated Berlaymont, so some money (whose?) has been invested recently. Most of the lorries that used to drive around following cleverly buried wires now sit stationary.
Perhaps what best symbolises Mini-Europe’s decline is the model of the Thalys high-speed train. Various other trains shuttle to and from advertising sponsors such as DHL, but the Thalys has toppled off its track, and no one has rescued it. This is inappropriate because the real-life Thalys (unlike a certain other attempt at a high-speed train in these parts) actually works rather well.
Outside the gates, there is a jolly fairground roundabout and disappointing catering establishments that visitors to tourist attractions have to suffer.

My two social networks 27 October 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in Uncategorized.
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I’ve just discovered (after tens of thousands of other people) that the computation engine Wolfram|Alpha will do an amazing analysis of your Facebook usage if only you type ‘Facebook report’ into its search box. It calculates reams of information such as how many links you upload, what time of day you log in, who comments on your entries, where they say they live and what they say their birthdays are. It produces some amazing charts too, including a wordcloud of your comments (my most common word is ‘economic’).

Wolfram|Alpha network analysis of my Facebook friends

This is the best chart – a network analysis of my 91 Facebook friends. Reader, you can see that you fall into one of 4 main clusters. The salient fact though is that my ‘ffriends’ are rigidly divided into two worlds – work and family – no one bridges the gap. The co-operative world makes up the top half of the chart, with the British side in orange on the left and the European side in khaki on the right – linked by CECOP and Vivian. Brussels Labour is the outlier top left and COPIE & AEIDL are top right. Truus’s family is in blue bottom left, and my family in green bottom centre, linked by Truus herself, Zanna and Liana. Way over on the right are 3 old friends from Suma. Finally as is inevitable for a dumb computer, some people are in the wrong place – and so Ian Symonds has attached himself to Truus’s family.

It’s a fascinating diagram. I wonder whether the two halves of my schizophrenic existence will ever connect to each other? And if only WordPress had similar analytics.

Paradigm shifts and the certainty of failure 12 October 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy.
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The inclusive entrepreneurship industry preaches that we should all take a more open-minded attitude to risk, but is it responsible? The certainty is that if we take enough risks, one day one of them is bound to go sour. If it’s big enough, it will be our last.

It’s a niggling thought that first came to me about 20 years ago when a friend of mine called Dave came back from San Francisco to Leeds and promptly started an internet business. His express objective was to make a lot of money, which I thought simple-minded. (I worked in an equal-pay common ownership co-operative after all.) His attitude to risk seemed to be based on an elementary mathematical error. I thought back to the history of my own father, who had risen from an elementary education through war service to running his own company manufacturing medical electro-acoustics, and made it onto Tomorrow’s World, the BBC television programme on innovation. An achievement, by the way, of which I was insufficiently admiring at the time. Both these innovative business ventures went bust: my parents lost their house and Dave eventually died of a massive heart attack.

You can have two theories of progress through life, as John Naughton points out in a recent article on Thomas Kuhn in the Observer. Following the first model you beaver away solidly at a career, salting away the proceeds in a pension fund and retiring blamelessly and in comfort. By contrast in the second model, you go through a series of uneventful periods broken by massive dislocations or ‘paradigm shifts’.

My professional life involves the promotion of what we have dubbed ‘inclusive entrepreneurship’ – the opening up of access to self-employment and business creation to anyone in society. This starts with promoting positive role models of business in schools, and carries on by removing the benefit trap, offering business advice that is culturally appropriate, training that is easy to access, incubators, microfinance, the Dragon’s Den and so on. The hyper-fashionable idea of social innovation springs from the same meme – that this financial crisis demands that we rethink the way we do things radically.

You must be clackers!

Now, what should our approach be to new ideas? Dad used to comfort himself with the saw that ‘the man who never made a mistake never made anything’ – and venture capitalists are reputed to invest in a man who has a couple of bankruptcies behind him (it’s irrelevant to them who was hurt by the fallout). If your theory is that if you take enough risks then one of them one day is bound to pay off – then statistically the reverse is the case. It’s like swinging a weight on the end of an elastic band like a set of ‘Clackers’ – as the oscillations get larger, the band will eventually snap. As an entrepreneur accumulates experience and resources in successive business ventures, (s)he will be able to take bigger and bigger risks. It starts with swapping marbles in the playground, moves up a notch to trading on eBay, and leads eventually to a fully-fledged stock-market flotation. I know business people who have succeeded, built up a big business and sold out at profit on the back of winning a juicy contract. But what do they do then? They can’t resist having another go. And the sad logic of it is that if you take enough risks, one day one of them will turn sour – and that will be the last risk you take. So you have a 100% chance of failure. This is a mathematical certainty. One day the rubber band will snap.

So we should be very wary of taking a cavalier attitude to bankruptcy, slashing the welfare safety net, and ditching the social economy in favour of social business!

A Yorkshire poet in the family 25 January 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in Uncategorized.
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I’ve just discovered a strange coincidence. In 1859, my great great grandfather James Casmey wrote a poem, A Voice From Hackfall, in praise of the 18th-century landscape gardens at Hackfall Woods near Grewelthorpe, just south of Masham, North Yorkshire. That same wood fought off stiff competition to be awarded a grand prix in the EU Cultural Heritage Prize for conservation in 2011.

James Casmey was born in 1813 in Goa, and died on 24th December 1886 in Brighouse. He was a nailmaker, and, ironically, also an active teetotaller and co-founder of a temperance society in Staincross, just north of Barnsley. The rather rare name Casmey is still being passed down among my Rands cousins, and my brother Najm-ud-Din (to whom thanks for the genealogical research) uses it as an internet handle.

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