Saturday, 15 November 2008

Dubai Conference

Peter Raisbeck from University of Melbourne presented a couple of papers in the CIB Dubai Conference about various aspects of public-private partnerships (PPP) in the construction sector. One of them caught my interest, where he had used analytical hierarchy process (AHP), something that is usually completely uninteresting to me. He used AHP to deal with the responses he got from a survey of perceptions in Australia about PPP projects. I was very interested in how the AHP approach had enabled him to sort out important from unimportant issues, and say something interesting about the relationships between issues. When he said the survey instrument was online, I immediately thought of the value of re-running the exact same survey in several countries at once. I have tried international surveys before, and it is very difficult to catch the interest of practitioners when you are not even based in their country. In this case, though, I could easily imagine asking several hundred practitioners who deal with PPP projects to complete an on-line survey about what they think is important. I also thought that this could be simultaneiously carried out in a number of other countries, such as Hong Kong and Sweden, both of which were represented in the room at the time. It was great being able to pluck out of the air something that could be quickly and easily put together among colleagues all over the world, knowing that the output would be interesting enough for future papers. Conference papers would be easy enough, but I hope that such a simple exercise in an international comparison of perceptions might also be robust enough for journal papers. I am hopeful that we can give this a go.

Friday, 14 November 2008


After an overnight flight on Thursday evening, I arrived in at the hotel about 8 am, and had to wait in the lobby for up to two hours while the room was prepared. I found Stephen Gruneberg in the same situation, and he looked shattered having not slept a wink on his flight. While we sat with coffee, plenty of other colleagues were arriving or just passing by and stopping for a chat. After finally getting my room, I got washed and changed. The newly opened Dubai Mall was across the road. With 4,500(!) shops, I thought I'd go for a stroll to stretch my legs. There was nowhere else to head for, being surrounded with building sites. It was getting on for lunchtime, and there was a food court in there, but it was literally heaving with people, with long queues and no spare seats. Many people were eating their lunch standing up. There was a lot of excitement at a giant two-storey aquarium stuffed with sharks, rays and various shoals of fish. It was hard to get interested in such an overstated and ostentatious display, especially among the shops of famous designer labels, fashion houses and all the jewellery and gold. The incongruity of an artificial piece of the marine environment in a shopping mall was, somehow, a sign of just how wrong this all felt. The mall is filled with the excited noise of people wandering around the shops and getting excited by all the opportunities to buy very expensive things. The prices are generally very high, and the stuff on sale is generally quite useless, unless you need to demonstrate to the world how rich you are, which seems to be the national pastime here.

The registration and reception was that evening and it was great to catch up with all my old friends before the conference started in earnest the next day.

Dubai is bigger than I imagined, and a lot dirtier that I'd imagined, due to the gigantic scale of the construction work under way. The world's tallest building is under construction near my hotel, and it is jaw-droppingly tall. It is broad at the base, and gets increasingly slender, in steps, as it gets higher. The upper floors are very slender indeed.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


Although the modern trumpet is pitched in the key of B flat, a large proportion of classical music was written when valved trumpets were rare or not yet invented. As a result, much of the music that I play in Crowthorne Orchestra is written for trumpets in different keys. Because our next concert involves two trumpets and two cornets (Franck's 1st Symphny), Dave Johnson, who I used to play next to in Thames Wind Band and Woodley Concert Band, has come to join us temporarily to bump up the trumpet section. He turned up with several trumpets and cornets, and was showing me one that he recently bought on e-bay. This is a trumpet in C that can convert to B flat. It plays well in C, and the sellers appeared to be shifting one of these every day. So I have been joining in the bidding day-by-day, and yesterday I won an auction! For £125 I am getting a new trumpet. This is an incredible price if the instrument plays well, and I am looking forward to its arrival. I guess I won't see it until I get back from Dubai next week.

Toumani Diabaté

I was listening to Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orcestra on CD. I love the way that he plays the Kora. His Symmetric Orchestra consists of people from different cultures and traditions. Their name was chosen because no one style dominates over the others. I love listening to this, and I was reading the sleeve notes again, and read that the Symmetric Orchestra rarely performs outside Mali, but plays every Friday night in Toumani's club in Bamako, Mali's capital. What a shame. The idea of going to see them play, and sit in the club soaking up the atmosphere seemed an impossibility that was hugely appealing, and I was daydreaming about going there to see them, thinking how wonderful it would be, and what a shame I couldn't go there. Then the thought struck me - why not? There are plenty of research active staff and PhD students in West Africa that simply do not have the resources to travel to Universities like mine and get access to resources and staff so that they can develop their research ideas and take part in research seminars. It would probably be useful, as an editor, to engage with these people. Moreover, we recruit many undergraduates and postgraduates from this region. So there are plenty of strong professional reasons for going. And my PhD student, Sam Laryea, from Ghana, is well connected. I discussed it with him, and now we are talking about setting up a visit to Ghana and Mali. A research workshop in Ghana, gathering up people from nearby West African countries, followed by a trip to Mali, would be perfectly plausible. I have the funding for the flights, and Sam has the contacts to arrange the venue and invite the audience. This could be a great trip.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Research Institute for the Built Environment

We established the Research Institute for the Built Environment as an alternative face for the School of Construction Management and Engineering, in order to help us to present our work to audience who might not usually look in our direction. The RIBE is becoming a forum for different kinds of work that take us into new directions and involvement with people we might not previously have come across. Jennifer Whyte, a Reader in Innovation and Design in the School, has organized a seminar series under the RIBE banner, in which external speakers are invited to address an audience of researchers, predominantly from the Innovative Construction Research Centre. Usually, we would get a paper from the speaker a week in advance of the event, and one of our colleagues will lead the discussion. Today, Prof Dick Boland was with us from the Department of Information Systems, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. It is always fascinating to go into some depth in a discussion, and particularly so when someone whose research has not been in construction turns their attention to the construction sector. Dick has done some very interesting work on the new building for his School that was designed by Frank Gehry. Although his background is in accounting, his research now emphasizes interpretive studies of how individuals design and use information systems. The way that he had applied this to an in-depth case study of a construction project was fascinating, but I won't write too much about it, because I just noticed on the draft paper that we were discussing was the text "please do not cite or circulate"! It was a draft, after all. Suffice to say, there were about 20 of us, most from SCME but some from the Informatics Research Centre, and we learned a lot by thinking about things from a very different perspective to usual. This is the great thing about these seminars.

Undergraduate tutorials

The tutorial discussions that I set up with Jan Hillig on 31st October have come to an end today. As often happens, that deadline for a stage of their project work coincided with the ten-day exercise n Blackboard, so almost no one even turned to until the last day or two, and the majority of them did it today, the last possible day. It is interesting that it seems not to matter how long they are given, things will always get done on the last day. This is a real shame in this case, because the aim is to get them to make rejoinders to each others' posts. We even give marks for rejoinders as well as their original posts. These marks count towards the final assessment for the module, so they are usually highly motivated to complete this exercise. This year, there were a number of new problems. Some students saved their submission, rather than posting it on the discussion board, then could not find it! Others turned to it after the closing time and wondered why it was no longer possible to take part. One student got quite stressed as only two people in her tutorial group seemed to be active, so she could not make a sensible rejoinder until the last minute, when a few more joined in. Some students wanted to go back and edit their post, after they received comments from the tutors. I explained to them that this functionality was disabled, because the marks they get related to what they posted, and the marks may not make sense if they go back and change what they have written. More importantly, other students may make rejoinders to posts that would not make sense, were the original post to be edited. One student wrote to me to apologise for having hit the wrong button and accidentally posting something completely senseless. I was able t remove it quite quickly. I think we got there in the end. By the end of the allotted time there was a massive amount of work that had been posted by the students, much of was really excellent quality. Now the serious work of assessing and grading it begins. One really useful aspect of this mode of tutorial and assessment is that students get feedback on their performance very quickly. This sense of immediacy seems to be greatly appreciated. It places quite a lot of demand on students and tutors, though, which is why, this year, we have increased the proportion of marks represented by this part of the assessment.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Interventionists

I am extraordinarily lucky to have team of researchers working on various aspects of construction procurement. We meet most Thursday mornings to discuss progress and share ideas. As you can see, we are a diverse bunch who originate from many parts of the world: Ghana, China, Taiwan, Nigeria, England, Iran, Italy and Germany. Because they work on different projects, we needed a name for the group that was not associated with any one source of funding or any single research project. Since we want our research to make a difference, The Interventionists emerged as the name for the group. This constantly reminds us that, in the long run, we seek to create interventions that have an impact, whether in theory-building, teaching or practice.

No ordinary beans

Chatting to Milan Radosavljevic in the coffee bar, I learned that his daughter has developed a liking for tinned baked beans. I shared with Milan what I did with baked beans when wanted to make them special: soften a finely chopped onion with crushed garlic and finely chopped ginger for five minutes, then add some sliced celery and chopped green peppers. After five more minutes, add a handful of curry powder, or ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cloves, chilli, arrowroot and so on in whatever proportions you prefer. Cook the spices for a couple of minutes, then add a couple of tablespoons of tomato puree and a small glass of apple juice. Chop a dessert apple and add this with the tin of baked beans. This can be served on toast with a fried egg on top. If you want to make the egg special, sprinkle paprika on top of it while it is frying. We thought you'd like this suggestion, so go on, give it a try!

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Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom

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