Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Corporate Christmas Cards

I have always found corporate Christmas cards to be something of an irritation, especially when the signatures are printed into the card, and from a range of people some of whom are known to me, but most of whom are not. It seems a particularly meaningless gesture. What is happening this year, as firms cut back on their expenditure, is that all sorts of people are sending electronic greetings cards instead. Often to "Dear All". All sorts of twee images and animations, often with sickeningly trite Christmas music. What compels this kind of corporate behaviour? It would be much nicer not to get these things cluttering up the inbox and in-tray. Bah, humbug.

Monday, 21 December 2009

More snow

I had a pleasant walk home from the University - it took about two hours. Very nice to see the beautiful scenery in the snow. It beats me why anyone would have tried driving in it! This evening, we went for another walk to have another look at the traffic chaos. It was amazing to see the feats of stupidity that the motorists indulged in, sliding and slipping all over the place, even though they'd been told by all the passers-by that the road was completely closed! St Peter's Hill was amazing, abandoned cars, lorries and buses all over the place. Priest Hill had a No 22 bus crashed and jammed right across the road, at right angles to the traffic flow. All the other abandoned vehicles I saw had merely skidded and been left where they landed, without serious collision. Everything was wonderfully chaotic and the people were being so kind to each other, it gave me a rosy glow. Apart from the nutters who could not believe that the roads were impassable. Oh, what fun...

Friday, 18 December 2009

Snow

The snow was quite nice this morning. Not much evidence of grit on the roads, and some of the hilly roads has cars and vans scattered around like toys, all trying to make slippery progress in a straight line and bouncing gently off each other and off parked cars. I was so glad not to be sliding down a hill out of control like last year. Apparently, another blizzard is due to hit Reading at 15:00 so we'd better not hang around our offices too late. It is very quiet in the University today...

Friday, 11 December 2009

Is private finance the right answer?

There is much written about the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and about Public Private Partnerships. The UK government is clearly keen to involve the private sector in the provision of public services. While such partnerships can be very beneficial, the replacement of public investment by private capital is worrying. What is more worrying is the seemingly uncritical acceptance of this policy by the construction industry. Is this because private finance is such a blindingly obvious solution to various problems, or is it just that searching questions have not been asked?

PFI has long been an alternative to borrowing for under-funded governments. Although it can provide necessary infrastructure, it also carries a service charge, such as tolls for roads, for the duration of the agreement. The end user still pays, whether through taxation or directly to the concessionaire at the point of use. The key feature of private investment is that the money comes from revenue streams instead of from capital investment. Is PFI cheaper because the value of a pound in the future is less than the value of a pound today? This advantage needs to be weighed against the fact that governments ought to be able to borrow more cheaply than the private sector (and the private sector must make a profit). On the face of it, net expenditure is likely to be more if the private sector raises capital and charges government for service provision.

There is great enthusiasm for PFI: Contractors and designers are hungry for the extra work; governments are relieved of the need to use the public sector borrowing. By reducing the PSBR, the balance of payments is instantly improved and the government will appear to be handling the economy very well. They may even be able to cut taxes. All this is splendid during a transition period, before these new facilities come on stream. However, the private sector invests in these things because of the income stream. That income will be from revenue instead of capital funds. By the time this pressure for increased government spending forces taxes to be raised, the government that got us into this position will be long gone. Are we mortgaging our future for the sake of someone’s short-term political advantage?
It seems that when there is any kind of public sector mis-management, the only possible answer is to relieve public sector agencies and departments of future responsibility and transfer it to the private sector – a very defeatist attitude. Why don’t they learn how to manage? Apparently, no one in the public sector knows how to manage so private capital has to be used to give private sector managers the incentives to manage efficiently and this somehow will produce efficiency gains.

The public sector may indeed be inefficient, but surely it can be improved? Are we to understand that the government must never have control over capital investment in case they invest wrongly and that the service providers must have private money because the government is too stupid to give them the right amount of money? This seems to be an extreme reaction. The solution, surely, is to learn from mistakes.

There are political risks involved in partnering with government. PFI has been introduced during an era when successive UK governments have downplayed ideology in favour of appeal to the electorate. But if there is ever a return to a more ideological era, policy changes and government involvement in infrastructure decisions will increase. Such risks will inevitably increase the cost of capital. Thus we move from a situation where the government could borrow cheaply because it was backed by taxation to one where we are going to have to pay more to compensate investors for the fact the government might change its mind about an operating contract at some point over the 25-30 year life of the deal.
There are contractual risks in any construction project. Unpredictable risks are, by definition, difficult and expensive to price for, so they are usually taken by the client (an example being unforeseeable ground conditions). This makes sense when the client is the government. If they pay for things when they go wrong, they pay for what it actually costs, rather than for a contractor’s accumulation of contingencies for when hazards occur. But in PFI, the contractor is not employed by the government. We still encounter the same construction risks, but the client is an “SPV”, which has an inflexible source of funding. Presumably, the clauses relating to unforeseeable ground conditions ought to be crossed out, or at least modified, but it appears that these clauses are not modified. The risks are dealt with as if the client for the construction project is the government; is there a rational risk apportionment strategy at work here? Large, repeat clients can cover the risk. One-off clients cannot. An SPV is a one-off client with no financial resource of its own.

The potential gain using PFI is an efficiency gain brought about because of the reputed expertise of the private sector to be lean and efficient. Added to this are financial benefits of using cheaper future money instead of expensive current money. However, the advantage brought by PFI has to be weighed against the disadvantages; higher cost of capital in the private sector, payment for the revenue stream for the facility, paying for the long-term risk of changes in government policy and transferring major risks to SPVs with inadequate financial reserves. It seems that the whole idea is built upon the dubious assertion that the public sector is completely incapable and the private sector is completely capable. But does the private sector have a blemish-free record of managing major ventures? How many major failures have there been in the private sector recently? I would love to see this debate taken beyond the immediate concerns of firms hungry for work and placed into the longer-term context of the future health of the UK.

Originally published in Construction News in 2002

Friday, 27 November 2009

Authorship

Some years ago, when I was modifying the ARCOM model paper layout to deal with issues of authorship, I suggested the following text: "Authorship should respect the rights of those involved in the production of the paper. The person who wrote most of the text should be the first-named author, even if this is a student. The sequence of authors should reflect the magnitude of each person’s contribution to the text of the particular paper. Supervisors, grant-holders and heads of department should not automatically be added as authors unless they took part in the writing of the paper. If a junior person wrote the paper, and a senior person helped with the editing, structuring and drafting, the senior person should be acknowledged in the acknowledgements, but merely helping to guide someone through the writing process does not warrant authorship."

A colleague on the ARCOM committee responded, thus: "I cannot come to terms with your recommendation to add a text in the Model Paper about the Authorship. I think it is too prescriptive and does not recognize the variety of possibilities that might well be legitimate. There are a diversity of efforts that go into undertaking a research and converting the results into papers. To reduce them into "the person who wrote the most of the text" is an understatement. Obviously there are certain practices that are not acceptable: not reading the paper on which your name comes first is on that radar and plagiarism is at the heart of that radar."

My response was: "I see what you mean. I agree that the world is more complex than the monochrome vision that I paint. And, yes, I agree that I am overstating the case. That is what I usually do! My reason for habitually overstating the case is that it makes it easier to explain, and easier to disagree with. Your rejoinder makes me realize that I should precede my suggested words by making it clear that they are only suggested guidelines which may result in a different approach for particular authors at particular times, but which would at least prompt an informed discussion between authors. My motivation is to empower junior authors to actually have this discussion with their senior co-authors. If they decide that this suggested policy is not appropriate in their case, then OK. I know it sounds prescriptive, but I did not mean to produce a set of rules, so, yes, I should re-phrase it. I wanted to provide an indication of what would be equitable, so that authors did not have to wait until they were more senior to become first authors, by which time they were no longer the primary progenitors of the text!"

Interestingly, none of this text is present in the guidelines now, so we must have got distracted by other matters. I still think that it is important to be clear about authorship of papers, and I still find that it is quite common for senior academics to have their names as authors despite sometimes having little or no involvement in the development or drafting of the paper.

The issue is important, and I quite like the Wikipedia entry about authorship

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Strange policy

I enjoyed this news story reported by the BBC. The UK Department of Health part-funded some research looking into the question of whether health professionals could help combat the effects of climate change. The researchers came up with a proposal that was a little bit wierd - kill 30% of Britain's cows and sheep! Not only would this help save the environment; it would also make us healthier. BBC reported: "The theory goes like this: if you have less ruminant livestock, you emit less climate-damaging methane into the atmosphere. You also have less meat to eat, which means less saturated fat in our diets and thus less heart disease." Various ministers came out in support of this marvelous idea until DEFRA heard about it, and they pointed out the stupidity of the policy. How would the farmers react to having to cut their herds? How would you prevent UK from importing masses of meat from Argentina and the like? Unsurprisingly, the policy quickly disappeared even though the report is still available. Magic.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Reviewing research papers

The text below originally appeared in an ARCOM Newsletter. I reproduce a revised version here to make it more accessible to new researchers who might not be combing through back-numbers of ARCOM newsletters at www.arcom.ac.uk

There are many things that contribute to the quality of a research paper. Any report of research begins with a review of the relevant body of literature, and there is excellent guidance for undertaking a literature review in Silverman (2000: 12) and in Rudestam and Newton (1998: 50-51). Based upon this guidance, this paper offers a personal view of what we should be looking for in research papers, with the aim of prompting wider debate.

In all papers, a structure is required and the argument should flow from one section to the next. Obviously, clear English should be used throughout and jargon should be avoided. Good papers will move from the general to the particular and begin with the context of the work, move through the statement of the problem being investigated, deal with the empirical and/or analytical aspects of the work, then develop the discussion and draw conclusions based upon what has been covered in the paper, relating these back to the original context of the work. Generally, papers will either develop theory or test theory. A paper that does neither will not add to the sum of knowledge and therefore will not fall into the category of a research paper. Issues connected with style, structure and presentation are dealt with extensively elsewhere in the literature (for example, Turk and Kirkman 1982) and there is no need to reiterate that guidance here, other than to state that the easiest questions can be the most difficult to answer: what have you done, why is it important and how have you gone about it?.

The focus of this article is on whether the material that is included in a paper is suitable for a research paper, rather than whether it is well-written. Silverman’s (2000) headings form an excellent basis for a discussion of what constitutes a good research paper:

  • Conceptualization and theoretical basis of the work
  • Analytical framework and hypotheses
  • Research design
  • Results and discussion
  • Conclusions of the paper

Conceptualization and theoretical basis of the work

The first questions to ask about a paper are connected with the problem or issue being investigated. There should be a clear statement near the beginning of a paper explaining what problem the paper seeks to resolve. Authors often leave this until half way through the paper. Indeed, some leave it out altogether, perhaps assuming that it is self-evident or simply not realizing that although it is obvious to the author, a reader with no previous knowledge of the work only has the paper to go on.

Any serious piece of research will involve concepts that are specific to the issue being investigated, or to the investigative approach that has been taken. These need to be summarized at the very least, and explained if they are not common within the field of the target audience. This is not just a case of explaining the concepts related to the particular construction industry phenomena under investigation, but, more importantly, to identify the methodological basis of the work. Thus, a research paper is not place for “text-book” explanations. Of course, the nature of the investigation is inevitably connected to some issue of relevance, but, while it may seem heretical to some, it is not necessary for a piece of construction management research to be practically relevant in industry. A piece of research may hold relevance only for other researchers, but that should not detract from our judgment of its value.

In assessing a report of research, it is always helpful to be able to see clearly how the reported work builds upon previous work. There should be explicit connections to an existing body of knowledge or body of theory, although these may not reside in the literature of construction management. Indeed, it is helpful if there are references to bodies of research and knowledge outside our own “domain”, since ours is not an academic discipline in its own right, with its own research techniques and theories (Hughes, 1999). While there are some emerging strands of theory that are unique to construction management or construction economics, most research in this area builds upon theoretical models developed elsewhere in the social sciences. These connections must be identified in order to make clear where a particular piece of work is rooted and to ensure that we are not simply re-inventing theories and models that are well-known in more mainstream disciplines. Without such connections, we run the risk of consigning our research to an academic backwater. With such connections, we may even be able to influence developments in mainstream thinking. In determining the theoretical basis of a piece of research, it is useful to think about knowledge domains. At the very least, it might be helpful to think about where would you expect to find a particular piece of work in a library so that connections and antecedents are clear.

These issues are important because progress in our understanding often depends upon our ability to generalize from specific examples. One question I often ask research students when they are trying to make these connections is “what is the general class of problem of which your chosen topic is a specific example?”. Understanding this enables some kind of view to be developed about the extent to which findings might be generalized into a wider context. Thus, good papers will begin with what is well-known and move gradually deeper into the less well-known (Latour, 1987: 57).

Analytical framework and hypotheses

All research papers have an analytical framework. Unfortunately, it is not always clearly articulated. The extent to which a particular approach is authoritative is often judged in terms of where it has come from. Thus, further connections to the research literature should be expected in the passages describing the analytical framework. When this is done well, it helps to establish the credibility of the paper by showing the usefulness of the particular approach, or approaches that precede it. The articulation of the analytical framework helps in judging the usefulness of the research question. It explains how the concepts and theories are being applied in this particular case.

One perennial problem with research papers in our field is the question of whether there should be hypotheses. They are certainly not a pre-requisite for a good research paper. In fact, they may not belong at all. The question about whether there should be hypotheses is, perhaps, a wrong question. Their presence or absence depends upon the methodological stance of the research. It is not intended to enter into the methodological debate here, other than to point out the dangers of not understanding the methodological implications of different approaches to research (see, for example, Seymour and Rooke, 1995). Given one methodological stance, hypotheses may be irrelevant. Given another, they may be indispensable.

If there are hypotheses, they should be clearly stated. If there are no hypotheses, then this, of itself, is not a problem, but it should be clear whether the paper is a review, a case study, a contribution to theory development or some other type of study. Without clear articulation, the reader stands no chance of determining the value of the contribution. In the presence of hypotheses, the relationships between the main variables should be explicit and reasonable. They should be stated in a way that makes them testable and the results, no matter what they are, interpretable. If the research is not built on hypotheses, the significance of the paper’s contribution to the development of theory must be explained.

Research design

In undertaking research, there are many methods that can be used to find answers to questions. Some are more suitable than others. In answering certain types of question, one particular method may be very powerful, but the same method may be weak in dealing with other types of question. Therefore, the relevance of the methods of research will be judged in terms of their appropriateness to the nature of the question being asked. Similarly, the sensitivity of the methods must match the needs of the research question. A good paper will make clear the type of research design, perhaps by reference to earlier, similar studies from different regions, different industries or different disciplines.

The research must be focused on an appropriate unit of analysis. It is useful to describe the criteria by which this was chosen, as well as the criteria by which the cases were chosen. For example, the unit of analysis could be a person, a finished building, a project, a firm, an industry or a country. Each would result in an entirely different study from the others. Moreover, cases might be selected from a large number of similar cases, which would imply one kind of approach, or the question might be framed in such a way that there is only one case, implying an entirely different approach. Neither, of itself, is more or less valid than the other. Indeed no judgement can be made about the validity of a piece of research simply by counting the cases or referring to the unit of analysis. Each characteristic depends on the other.

It is always important to address whether the research design isolates what is being measured from other effects, or, at the very least, identifies the inter-relationships between the effect under scrutiny and other effects. If the research design involves the identification of variables, they need to be clearly and reasonably operationalized (i.e. translated into simple descriptions of what is measured and how it is to be measured) and the reliability and validity of the measures should be discussed. Similarly, there will be issues related to the appropriateness of the population for the research question being studied, the sample size used and the extent to which the results can reasonably be generalized on the basis of this particular sample.

Again, not all research is as deterministic as this, but there are traditions in different types of work and if a phenomenological or ethnographic approach is being adopted, then the author should take this stance clearly and confidently and not try to dress it up in hypothetico-deductive clothes! These issues are well-articulated by Johnson and Duberley (2000), who warn against the dangers of not dealing with the epistemological positions that are implicit in different approaches to empirical research. It is important to emphasize that none of us wishes be prescriptive about the kind of research that is encouraged in ARCOM. We welcome research outputs that add to our understanding of construction management issues. But, the relevance and appropriateness of research outputs can only be evaluated in the light of the epistemological background to the research and this is why it is important to discuss the design of the research.

Results and discussion

Within the research paper, the data or evidence of the field-work must be present in some guise. But there are limits on the length of papers, whether for conferences or for journals. It is inevitable that the data will not be reported in their entirety through these outlets. Thus, one technique is to describe what the data is like, rather than what it is. Perhaps sample sections of interview transcripts can be given; examples of diaries or other source documents can be used to illustrate the approach taken. The full record of the data can be maintained elsewhere, perhaps in a departmental library or on the internet, so that the interested reader can interrogate the data further.

In any event, there must be sufficient information within the paper itself for the reader to evaluate whether the data were appropriate for the study and whether the data collection and record keeping were systematic. Similarly, the validity and robustness of the results of the study will depend upon whether the analytical techniques were appropriate and adequately described. Most importantly, there should be reference to accepted procedures for analysis. This helps the reader to understand what kind of tradition there is in the particular kind of analysis and how such research is generally reported.

In assessing how systematic the analysis has been, one of the main ideas is to persuade the reader that if he or she were to have done the same things, then the same conclusions would have been reached (Latour, 1987). Again, it is important that this very statement implies a certain epistemological stance, so the researcher and the reader need to be clear about whether they are working from the same basis in coming to their views about the results and their discussion.

Conclusions

Conclusions can be the most difficult part of a paper to write, particularly if the context and research design have not been addressed properly in the first place. It is often the case that those who have the greatest difficulty writing conclusions, can trace their difficulties to poor research planning. When research is well planned, the conclusions become obvious from the work that has been reported.

No new facts should be introduced in the conclusions. The conclusions of the study should be consistent with the results of the analysis. Where there is no numerical analysis, the conclusions should be consistent with, and follow from, the development of the argument in the paper. I am not quite sure why, but many authors commence their conclusions with a summary of the paper. This is usually not required, if there is already a summary at the beginning.

The conclusions may be expected to reconsider the purpose of the research, summarize what was discovered and provide a discussion about the implications of the findings. In many cases, conclusions can be bolstered by considering whether there are alternative conclusions that are consistent with the data or arguments that have been presented. Also, it is useful to consider both theoretical and practical implications of the results. If the research has been properly contextualized at the beginning of the paper, the theoretical implications of the reported research can be adequately connected to the literature discussed there. It is usual to include limitations of the study and future research needs, to the extent that the research has revealed further gaps in our collective knowledge. The limitations of the study should be noted in terms of the parameters of the research and applicability of the findings. Authors sometimes misinterpret the purpose of a section on limitations of the work and attempt to indulge in soul-searching self-criticism, identifying faults in the execution and reporting of their own work. This is simply not required. The section on limitations should make clear that, for example, the conclusions do not apply to all construction activity in all places at all times. The approach taken in the research enables certain generalizations to be made, but what are they?

Conclusions can also be bolstered by including discussion of the evidence for and against the researcher's arguments and making a clear distinction between the data and their interpretation.

Finally…

Any research paper is capable of being summarized succinctly. Papers are expected to include an abstract or summary at the beginning, especially in the cases of conferences and journals, but this should be the last thing to be written! Although abstracts may be invited for conferences before the paper is written, the abstract of the final paper ought to be written after the paper is finished, summarizing the paper that has been produced, rather than the paper that was originally intended.

In evaluating a research paper, it must be possible for the evaluator to summarize the paper, indicating an overall assessment of the adequacy of the study for exploring the research problem and an overall assessment of the contribution of the study to this area of research. Authors would do well to bear this in mind when writing their papers, so that they can provide the relevant cues that will lead a reader to conclude exactly what the author has concluded. Sometimes, there is simply not sufficient information in the paper to enable such statements to be articulated. In such cases, the paper should be revised.

References

Hughes, W.P. (1999) Construction research: a field of application. Australian Institute of Building Papers, 9, 51-58.
Johnson, P. and Duberley, J. (2000) Understanding management research: an introduction to epistemology.
London: Sage.
Latour, B. (1987) Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Rudestam, K.E. and Newton, R.R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation: a comprehensive guide to content and process. London: Sage.
Seymour, D. E. and Rooke, J. (1995) The culture of the industry and the culture of research. Construction Management and Economics, 13(6), 511-523.
Silverman, D. (2000) Doing qualitative research. London: Sage.
Turk, C. and Kirkman, J. (1982) Effective writing: improving scientific, technical and business communication. London: Spon.

Checklist of questions to keep in mind while reviewing a research paper:

1 Conceptualization and theoretical basis of the work

(a) What is the problem or issue being investigated?
(b) What are the major concepts, and how clearly are they defined/explained?
(c) Is the connection to an existing body of knowledge or theory clear?
(d) Is there some practical relevance in this work (research practice or industrial practice)?
(e) What is the theoretical basis of this work, i.e. knowledge domain, for example, where would you expect to find this work in a library (classification number)?

2 Analytical framework and hypotheses

(a) Is there a clearly stated research question? (It might not be a research paper, as such)
(b) Are there hypotheses? Are they clearly stated? If there are not hypotheses, is the paper a review, case study, contribution to theory development or some other type of study?
(c) If there are hypotheses, are the relationships between the main variables explicit and reasonable? If there are not hypotheses, is there adequate development of theory?
(d) If there are hypotheses, are they stated in a way that makes them testable and the results, no matter what they are, interpretable? If there are not hypotheses, are there clear indications as to the significance to theoretical development?

3 Research design

(a) Are the methods of research appropriate to the nature of the question being asked?
(b) What is the type of research design?
(c) Could the design be improved? How?
(d) Is there a clear account of the criteria used for selecting the focus (unit) of analysis and the cases chosen?
(e) Does the research design isolate what is being measured from other effects? Are the variables clearly and reasonably operationalized (what is measured and how)? Are the reliability and validity of the measures discussed?
(f) Is the population appropriate for the research question being studied? Is the sample specified and appropriate? Can the results be reasonably generalized on the basis of this sample?

4 Results and discussion

(a) Are the data appropriate for the study? Was the data collection and record keeping systematic?
(b) Are the statistical techniques appropriate and adequately described? Is reference made to accepted procedures for analysis?
(c) Are the control variables adequately handled in the data analysis? Are there other control variables that were not considered but should have been?
(d) How systematic is the analysis?
(e) Is there adequate discussion of how themes, concepts and categories were derived from the data?

5 Conclusions

(a) Do the conclusions flow from the work that has been reported?
(b) Are the conclusions of the study consistent with the results of the analysis? (If there is no numerical analysis, are the conclusions consistent with the development of the argument in the paper?)
(c) Are alternative conclusions that are consistent with the data discussed and accounted for?
(d) Are the theoretical and practical implications of the results adequately discussed? Are the theoretical implications adequately connected to the literature discussed at the beginning of the paper?
(e) Are the limitations of the study noted (in terms of parameters of the research and applicability of the findings)?
(f) Is there adequate discussion of the evidence for and against the researcher's arguments?
(g) Is a clear distinction made between the data and their interpretation?

6 Summary

(a) What is your overall assessment of the adequacy of the study for exploring the research problem?
(b) What is your overall assessment of the contribution of the study to this area of research?

References

Rudestam, K.E. and Newton, R.R. (2007) Surviving your dissertation: a comprehensive guide to content and process. 3rd ed. London: Sage
Silverman, D. (2009) Doing qualitative research. 3rd ed. London: Sage.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Schwarzwaldhochstraße

I have been reading about a road worth riding on the bike - Schwarzwaldhochstraße (Black Forest High Road), the B500 from Baden-Baden to Freudenstadt. Has anyone else tried it? It looks awesome. It could be a good waypoint on my next trip to Croatia... Or next trip to Nürburgring.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Crowthorne Symphony Orchestra

Monday evening is the weekly rehearsal for Crowthorne Symphony Orchestra. This evening's rehearsal was the first for two weeks. It was also the AGM, an annual meeting where the committee reports on the previous year's progress and think about the coming year. Things seem to be moving in a positive direction. Last year's concerts were very challenging for us, and as the orchestra gets better, the music gets harder! The orchestra is in good shape, by all accounts. Our recurring difficulty is getting sufficient violin players. But the continual throughput of people means that the orchestra is constantly changing. However, there are sufficient stalwarts to provide a sense of continuity and consistency. The orchestra has been going since 1991, since when it has been through a couple of name changes.

Our next concert will be Sunday 20th December, where we'll be playing Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Sibelius' Finlandia, Weber's Clarinet Concertino and Schumann's Symphony No. 4. Two of these pieces, the Weber and the Schumann, are new to me. They are shaping up well, and the more we play them, the clearer they become in terms of structure, shape and ensemble. The Sibelius and the Beethoven are well-known, excellent pieces. It promises to be a good concert!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Nürburgring on motorcycles

The Ring was truly awesome. What a fantastic experience. There were no others on the track, just our party of roughly 150 participants bumbling around in groups of about eight riders, each group following a leader who was highly experienced and could show us the correct line for every corner. And there was no overtaking, so we could ignore our mirrors and concentrate on bike handling, and avoiding riding into the back end of the bike in front. The groups were graded according to ability, and the first lap was unsuccessful, as we had self-selected and therefore groups were a bit mixed. Also, the first couple of laps were maddeningly slow, because it was important for us to find our way round the track and get to know the danger spots. After the first lap, it was clear that I was in the wrong group, and immediately bumped up 6 levels to a more appropriate group. Each lap the pace got more progressive, and I learned a lot about the track and about my bike’s handling. It was just brilliant. On top of that we had a day out riding the local roads in the region and seeing some of the wonderful scenery. And a 400-mile ride each end between home and Nordschleife. It was a brilliant experience, and I am very keen to do it again!

The hotel I stayed at overlooked the track, at Breidsheid. The first photo here is the view from my window. An awesome place to stay. The second photo is the view of my hotel from the track. This scene is well-known to anyone who has tried playing on this track in PlayStation racing games! The season was just about over, but even so, there was a good enough social life in Adenau for us to go out and eat and drink in the evenings. The region is beautiful, and the Nürburgring is a real spectacle, even if you just watch. It is well worth visiting if you get a chance.

Our trip was organized by TVAM, an IAM-affiliated group of advanced motorcyclists who provide training and support for improving road standards and safety. This was the first time they'd organized a trip to Nürburgring and, by all accounts, it was a tremendous success. The rest of my photographs are on Webshots, here.

Friday, 23 October 2009

To withdraw or not to withdraw?

A colleague from another University asked me a question: he submitted a paper to an international journal and had received no response after 10 months. He tried to contact the editor and his secretary said that the review process has started but they have not received all the responses from reviewers. Did I think it is OK for him to write a formal letter to withdraw the paper now? Or should he wait until the decision is made, no matter how long it takes? I was quick to advise him as follows.

In my experience, the gathering of referee reports is a burdensome task for an editor and the editorial office. One of the reasons that it can take so many months to get reports is that referees often do not answer promptly, or they say they will carry out the task, then change their minds, or they are just slow because of all the other demands on their time. Often, over a period of many months, we might find that we have tried 20 different referees in order to end up with the requisite four reports.

After all this work it is very annoying to then discover that the author wants to withdraw the paper! However, if the paper is rejected, then there is no real problem. Alternatively, if the decision is Major, or Reject & Resubmit, then that is an opportunity for the author to say to the editor that the requirements are just too harsh, and that he or she would prefer to withdraw it. But if an editor calls for minor revisions, or simply accepts the paper, the author really should not withdraw it. It would be bad protocol, because the editorial office and the referees wouyld have been working through this process for no reason. Perhaps the question to ask is, why would an author want to withdraw a paper mid-way through a long refereeing process? I have come across situations where an author has realized, too late, that there are such significant flaws in the paper that it really should go no further. This would need some careful dialogue wit the editor, explaining why the paper cannot continue in the process.

I summed up my advice thus. Therefore, you need pretty strong reasons for withdrawal. Either the editor's requirements are too harsh, or you have discovered some aspect of the paper that renders it unpublishable. I don't think that you should withdraw for any other reason, unless you want to upset the editor!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Article 25

The declaration of human rights includes, at Article 25.1 the following text:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood beyond his control.

This has inspired Victoria Harris to set up a voluntary group to carry out development work and post-disaster redevelopment and reconstruction. This group is called Article 25. They have carried out a number of projects in various countries, and among other things seek to set up student chapters in universities around the world. What a great idea! They run a database of volunteers and they are able to join up with local agencies and help to deliver projects that would otherwise be impossible. In other words, they actually design, manage and build construction projects. Unlike most organizations, they don't just talk about it, but actually get engaged an do stuff. Can you help them? It seems like a good opportunity for doing some meaningful voluntary work.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

House of Commons

It was quite a kick jumping into a taxi and requesting "House of Commons, please". But the traffic around Westminster slowed to a useless crawl, so I walked the last part. The occasion was the launch of a report, wittily titled, "Never waste a good crisis".

After a couple of glasses of wine and a few nibbles, Nick Raynsford was introduced to us. A very good speaker, of course, being an MP. Good eye contact, engaging, and clear points. He drew our attention to one graph in the report and told us how the best construction projects had done really well, but the rest had a long way to go. He shared with us his vision for an improved industry focused on value, and congratulated Andrew Wolstenhulme and his team on a great piece of work. Andrew then gave us an overview and, like a true gentleman, diverted the spotlight to the team rather than himself. One strange point that he made was that for every pound spent on deign, ten are spent on building, a hundred on operating and the benefit is a thousand. Yes, I know, almost impossible to figure out what it can mean, but the last incarnation of this kind of ratio was 1:5:200, a ratio that claimed that for every pound of building there are five of maintenance and 200 of operating. Clearly nonsense, otherwise construction would be half a percent of GDP. We debunked that myth in a conference paper (click here if you want to read it). I was happy with the idea of construction being pitched at roughly 10% of GDP and design being roughly 10% of construction. These are near enough in terms of orders of magnitude. But I had no idea how we could get £1,000 of "benefit" from £10 of construction. All very bizarre, but worryingly typical in this kind of gathering.

Then Vaughan Burnand, Chairman of CE enjoined us to keep the faith and continue to believe in the change agenda. By this time I was wondering if I'd stumbled into some strange kind of church gathering.

I had been involved in one of the multidisciplinary workshops that were part of the background work for this report, I was interested in meeting those participants again, and in seeing what the team had made of our input. Of course, few from our group had made it. And it was hard to recognise our words in the report. Shortly after our workshop, I received a draft nine-page summary of all we'd said, and I remember being satisfied that most of what we'd said had been captured. Perhaps it was not sufficiently "on-message" to have made it into the final report. Or, more likely, perhaps there was just too much of it! The section on industry structure in the report picks up a few of the main points and makes good use of them, so I am pleased with the impact of this. The report is available for download here. It was good to meet up with so many friends and colleagues from the industry, and catch up, and it was particularly good to see reports aobut how we organize ourselves being launched in the House of Commons. Have a look at the report, and post your comments here - it would be interesting to see what others make of it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

ARCOM Proceedings

I suddenly remembered that I had not yet finished with ARCOM 2009! Each paper will now be made into an individual PDF and uploaded to the ARCOM website from where it can be downloaded free of charge. What a great service! It is a laborious task, though, and I am really pleased to have enlisted the help of my newest PhD student, Hafizah Mohd Latif, who is sufficiently knowledgable about computers to add her strength to mine. Now the task will be completed much sooner than I could do it myself. The only thing that remains then will be to update the database so that these files can be discovered by searching in the abstracts database. It should not take too long to get all this sorted out for another year.

If you want to see previous year's papers, go to www.arcom.ac.uk, click on "Abstracts", click on the link to the search page, click on Browse, then click on "ARCOM Annual Conferences", then choose a year, and you can browse all the papers, downloading any that you want to read.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Remembering things

I wish I could remember things to write into the blog. There is so much going on, I don't know what to write about! Very strange.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

ARCOM 2009

Nottingham was the location for this year's ARCOM conference. We started on Sunday with a good-natured but busy committee meeting, in which we sorted out various business, not least the finalisation of the election process for next year's committee, since we had more nominations than places. It is strange, but welcome, how the allure of being on the committee seems to be growing stronger. We heard from Simon Smith, the Treasurer, that with the record number of delegates registered, the conference would be a success, at least financially. This was a relief, given the expense of hiring such a venue as Albert Hall, Nottingham.

Monday for me consisted of taking lots of photographs, attending several sessions, including the keynotes, and taking a group photo of the delegates at Nottingham Castle where we went for a reception and introduction to Nottingham's history. It was also the launch of the ARCOM Book about the story of the emergence of "the discipline", a book edited by Dave Langford and me, which provides a selection of offerings about the history of construction, the institutions, the journals, the educational structures, and a series of cameos from a range of different countries, all finished off with a sketch about the future. The index forms a structured picture of the ideas, places and key people that define what we see as the field of construction management. But this is certainly an unfinished story! It seemed to go down very well with the delegates, all of whom received a copy.

Tuesday involved many more photos and many more sessions. In the evening, after an organ recital on the great cathedral in the hall, and a piano recital by our very own David Greenwood, and then the conference dinner, David Boyd regaled us with the story of the ARCOM Movie, a story with an incredible span across the entire history of building. He concluded by using tiles drawn from bags of words to generate random paper titles, and got me, then Richard Fellows, then Faz Khosrowshahi, then himself, to talk for one minute on each of a four randomly generated titles. It was quite a challenge to improvise on a random (and meaningless) title, but good fun all the same.

Wednesday morning began with a "Question Time" style of debate with Andy Dainty chairing, and eight past-chairmen of ARCOM participating. Questions cam from the floor, and covered a range of issues from whether construction management was a discipline in its own right, the issue of the relationship between academia and industry, and the possible theme and location of ARCOM 2034, the fiftieth anniversary conference. The discussion was well-managed and, with so many participants, it was never going to be easy to get heated, especially as the poor acoustics meant we could not be heard without a microphone, and we all had to share the same roving mike! Making do was always something we have been good at, when required. The discussion lead me to make several conclusions about the nature and the future of the kind of things that we do.

First, I have always been clear that construction management is not a discipline in its own right. Indeed, I wrote a paper on this very topic some years ago - Hughes, W.P. (1999) Construction research: a field of application. Australian Institute of Building Papers, 9, 51-58. I still feel that our research into the construction sector should seek to carry out multi-disciplinary research in a way that develops the theoretical understanding of the disciplines that we apply. Can we contribute to real theory-building in this kind of work? What is it that the mainstream disciplines lack that can be met by an applied field like ours? This is a key question for me. The reason that I think that CM is not an academic discipline is that an academic discipline implies a recognisable set of methods, methodologies, techniques and vocabularies. I cannot see how this kind of consistency could emerge in studies as diverse as motivation, HR, organizational structure, economics, psychology, financial analysis and so on.

Second, a discussion on values in research lead me to conclude that research cannot be value-free. What we choose to research, and how it is funded, is fundamentally rooted in our value systems.

Third, another important issue raised from the floor, was about what kind of construction sector we would like to see. Some of the panellists felt that it was not for us to decide upon such things, and to merely observe and analyse. I took the view that we should apply value systems to what we did, and that we should work as part of the construction sector, rather than as an impassive outsider, and that for me the question was what kind of society would I like to see. In that sense, I wanted an industry that did not rely on slave labour and servitude and did not over-exploit natural resources. It would be good see the construction sector lead the way, but that is unlikely to happen give that major contractors seem not to be able to survive without these unsavoury practices, and they are probably are not going to ask us to help them dissociate from such excesses, especially in places like Dubai!

Fourth, the lighter question about the theme and location of the conference 25 years from now prompted me to bring these previous strands together in that I would imagine we might be looking at the interface between the built environment and the natural environment, and that the location would have to be distributed, connected by some kind of brilliant technology, because we would simply not be able to travel such distances for such events.

Overall the conference was an enormous success, and a lot of strong research was reported and commented on. It was great to see old friends and make new ones.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Goulash

I found a recipe on the back of a packet of organic Paprika. It was for Goulash, and involved piles of steak, which was not of much interest to us vegetarians. However, I realized that it would be pretty tasty with vegetarian sausages and some vegetables, so I adapted the ingredients a bit. But then, while I was cooking it, as well the ingredients, I changed the sequence and nature of the cooking and ended up with something almost completely unrelated to the initial recipe. So I'll claim this one as an original:

2 tbs oil, 2 chopped onions, 400g grilled vegetarian Lincolnshire sausages, 2 tbs wholemeal flour, 2 tbs paprika, 1 crushed clove garlic, 2 tbs tomato purée, 150ml beer, 400g tinned chopped tomatoes, 2 sliced cooked carrots, salt and pepper, 2 roasted red peppers, skinned and sliced (buy them in a jar if you don't know how to do this), 150ml natural yoghurt.

Heat the oil, cook onions until soft. Add paprika and cook for 5 minutes, then add the flour. Add the garlic, tomato purée, beer, tomatoes, salt and pepper, bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the red peppers, carrots and yoghurt and heat for a further 5 minutes. Serve with white rice.

Try it. Let me know how it went...

Friday, 24 July 2009

Authorship of journal papers

The Co-operative Network of Building Researchers list, cnbr-l, saw a fresh enquiry today about authorship of journal papers. I was interested that the person who prompted the enquiry appears to be a rock climber. The essence of this question was this, I’d like to invite discussion of the (possibly contentious) issue of authorship of (journal) papers in construction management – particularly who is named as authors, and in what order, when PhD candidates or other new scholars write papers. This is an issue on which I have strong views, so I responded thus:

You raise a useful and interesting question. My own view is that authorship should not be simply a right of those in authority to have their name on things whether they contributed to them or not. For what it is worth, here is how I put it in a chapter of a recent book:

One worrying aspect of authorship is the question of whether all the authors actually contributed to the writing of the text in the paper. There are different traditions in different areas of science. For example, in some sciences, the head of the institution, the head of the research team, the technicians who provided the resources to enable the research are all cited as joint authors, even though they may have contributed none of the text. In other areas, only those who directly contributed text would be listed as authors. The latter tends to be the case in construction management, although there are some notable exceptions. Because we operate with different assumptions, there is confusion around this issue, and all authors should clarify who will be listed, and in what sequence, before they begin work on their papers, to avoid divisive and difficult arguments later in the process. One alternative to joint authorship, for someone who is not actually an author, is to include mention of them in the acknowledgements (Hughes, W.P. (2008) Getting your research published in refereed journals. In: Knight, A. and Ruddock, L (eds). Advanced Research Methods in the Built Environment, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 193-206)

To answer your questions directly, my opinion is that PhD students should be encouraged to write sole author papers, and it is the responsibility of the supervisor to help structure the paper, comment on drafts, and help see it through the publication process, in the role of supervisor, not in the role of co-author. But I know that this is not everyone’s preference. If a supervisor actually writes part of the paper, then of course that would justify co-authorship. However, in any serious evaluation of one person’s contribution to the field, such as a promotion panel, it is common to ask the candidate to indicate what percentage of each co-authored paper was contributed specifically by the candidate. This avoids any need to develop an algorithm for assessing the strength of authorship when there are multiple authors (as suggested by another respondent to your question).

This question is not a “construction management” issue, but an issue across all the sciences. You might be interested in a broader discussion here: http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/services/authorship.cfm where I particularly liked the opening sentence, “Studies of authorship in science suggest that traditional criteria for authorship no longer reflect the way research is actually done. Although published guidelines on authorship have existed for decades, investigations reveal that they are not followed consistently, and many researchers remain unaware of them.” I think many of us are unaware of the guidelines that already exist, and we are in danger of re-inventing the wheel, yet again! In the biomedical arena, for example, an “author” is generally considered to be someone who has made substantive intellectual contributions to a published study (http://www.icmje.org/index.html#author).

My advice is that all authors should clarify who will be listed, and in what sequence, before they begin work on their papers, to avoid divisive and difficult arguments later in the process. To help PhD students in such discussions with their supervisors, the links to more established sciences may be of use. And I think you are right to suggest that professors do not need lots of co-authored papers on their CVs, especially conference papers.

By the way, another horror story about authorship – what about those thrusting young academics who make informal agreements to add each other’s names to all of their papers, even when they have not actually contributed, exchanging multiple authorships as favours just to pad out their CVs? Do you think that actually happens? Is it ethical? What should a journal editor do on discovering such “phantom” authorships?

I hope this helps, and I look forward to other opinions on this thorny issue.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Reading Real Ale and Jazz Festival

More ale than jazz. In fact the music was pretty poor. It rained a lot, so we were in side the big tent, with torrential rain pouring across the entrances like waterfalls. The beer was awesome. Six of us tried loads of different types. Thankfully it stopped raining at closing time, so I walked home. It was so peaceful and quiet after the noise of the beer festival.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Woodcote Steam Rally

It is few years since I was able to make it to the annual rally. Every year, hundreds of enthusiasts with their refurbished engines and vehicles do the rounds of various rallies around the country. Many of the steam traction engines have been rescued from scrap and restored to their former glory. As well as these engines, there are cars, motorcycles, lorries, buses, all sorts of vehicles from the dawn of transportation to more recent models. Most important, the beer tent. This is run by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, a group of volunteers who formed in the 1970s as a reaction against the bland fizziness of the kind of antiseptic cheap coloured water that was gradually replacing real English beer in pubs throughout Britain. Due to their dedication and hard work, real ale is now a widespread phenomenon and at events like this we can enjoy some classic beers. I was there at the end of the event, so only got to sample a few beers, all of which were brilliant:
  • Rebellion Brewery: Mutiny
  • White Horse Brewery: Oxfordshire Bitter
  • Loddon Brewery: Flight of Fancy
  • Appleford Brewery Co: Power Station
By the time they were closing the beer tent, there was almost nothing left. They judged the quantities well. As always, a great day out with the wonderful smells of oil, coal and steam in the hot summer sunshine. A very happy bunch, these old vehicle enthusiasts.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

SCME PhD Conference

Our annual PhD Conference was particularly enjoyable this year. Graeme Larsen and Katie Saxelby-Smith introduced some new features, notable a poster presentation session in the afternoon, over a buffet lunch. In the morning, eight of our PhD student presented their work in varying states of completion, mostly early stage researchers, and the audience provided feedback and probing questions. The room was full, and there was good representation from Professors to Research Students, and the whole thing ran as smooth as clockwork. I think this was the eighth year that we have run this, but it is certainly the most successful one to date. Graeme and Katie did us proud.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Phallus Impudicus

What a thing to appear in the garden overnight! It turns out that these beauties pop up and grow to this length in a matter of hours. A most peculiar fungus. It smells disgusting, and so we investigated to find out more. Amazingly, our book of mushrooms does not contain this so-called stinkhorn type of fungus, but a quick search on the web revealed the facts. The slimy dark head attracts flies, who then pick up the spores and spread them as they go about their day. Apparently, they are almost impossible to eradicate, so all you can do is enjoy the surge of botanical invasion. I am grateful to Michael Kuo, the mushroom expert, for his website full of information about mushrooms.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

WABER Seminar - West African Built Environment Research

The two day seminar in Accra was at the British Council. After a brief welcome from the Deputy Director of the British Council in Accra, and an opening address by myself about the nature of research in our field, and what we are looking for, the event was formally opened with a welcoming speech from Professor Kwasi Kwafo Adarkwa, the Vice-Chancellor of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. We also presented KNUST with a hard copy of the entire back-catalogue of Construction Management and Economics, as a gift to the library. We hired the British Council for the venue, and arranged the refreshments and food, so that the delegates had only to turn up and take part. We did not charge them for attendance, this being the first time we had tried anything like this. The turnout was excellent, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for the event. It soon became clear that there had not been an event focused on the built environment in this region before.

Over the course of two day, 32 PhD students and prospective PhD students presented their work to the audience. Each presented for ten minutes, and then there was a ten minute critique and discussion, lead by the panel. We paired up presentations, so that the discussions could have the space to develop into something interesting. The sessions were all chaired by distinguished academics from the region, and this helped to keep the pace moving along. In many cases, the work being reported was at such a preliminary stage there was not much to discuss, so suggestions were made instead. What was intriguing was that although some of the criticism was quite harsh in some cases, the speakers took it on the chin in good spirit, and saw the experience as an opportunity to learn and develop. It was indeed refreshing to be among people who valued criticism, and did not see it as an affront to their dignity, as can happen in some parts of the world.

The range of work that was presented was broad. Despite our efforts to keep the focus on construction management, there were some presentations on materials science, some on property valuation, and even one from an artist on the representational aesthetics of palaces in Nigeria, or something along those lines. The quality, as well, was extremely variable, and so when one delegate presented a piece of work that was coherent, clear, well connected to what had gone before, and likely to produce something worth knowing, we decided to implement a prize for the best presentation. This was awarded to Mrs Kulomri Jaule Adogbo of Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria. It was a pleasure to see such good work. Some of the other presenters were just setting out with their research, and so we had a huge range of quality, from clearly enunciated, well-paced and easy to understand through to garbled and incoherent embarrassment. But everybody's got to start somewhere. Whatever was presented, there was a good discussion and in each case, constructive advice emerged from the various contributions to the debate. Here is a short list of some of the topics that are being researched in this region:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Construction costs
  • Contract management
  • Construction finance
  • Construction procurement
  • Supply chain management
  • Building maintenance
  • Human relations
  • Productivity
  • Economic development
  • Marketing
  • Decision support systems
  • Information technology
  • Urban development
  • Materials science

A couple of themes came up in many of the presentations. First, there was clearly some confusion as to what constituted academic research. Many presenters were clearly setting up a piece of consultancy work. When it was pointed out to them that this was not research and would not satisfy the requirements for a PhD, there was some confusion. In the end, we simplified the message down to "if you are doing what practitioners do, you are doing consultancy. If you are examining or analysing what practitioners do, it is research". This was something that had to be hammered home, but is also a regular problem in CM research the world over. Second, few presenters had come across the idea of research methodology. As usual, the word was bandied around a lot as a heading, but as usual, it heralded a discussion of methods. The distinction between methods and methodology was as difficult to get across here as anywhere. One metaphor that seemed to work was cooking - a recipe is a list of steps that are to be used in preparing a dish, but the recipe does not tell you why these steps work. Such is the difference between explaining what steps were involved (research methods) and explaining why they were chosen and how they generate data and information that will usefully address the questions (research methodology). Another frustration with research methods was the preoccupation with survey questionnaires and the notion of preparing some kind of model. It is a common feature among new researchers to assume that social science research requires a questionnaire survey. It doesn't. There are so many research methods that might be used, and the lack of variety in approaches to hugely varying questions indicated that few of these researchers were aware of the literature on research methods. So we frequently pushed people to carry out some review of research methods before they did their fieldwork, and in many cases we told them that a questionnaire survey would simply not answer the questions they were asking. However, some of the research studies were well designed with appropriate methods, and over the two days we saw the full range from expert to novice.

There was a strong sense of occasion to the event. On the second day we were featured on the radio, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, at breakfast and on the six o'clock news. Sadly we were too busy to find a radio and listen, but a journalist from the GBC was with us a lot of the time, and this hammered home to us just how unusual it was to have a workshop/seminar of this kind in West Africa. And although it was based on Accra, Ghana, the vast majority of the delegates had travelled from Nigeria. They had a meeting among themselves after the seminar was over, because, it seems, this was the first opportunity they had had to meet as a group.

Overall, then, this seminar was a resounding success. Something like 80 people spend two days sharing views and knowledge about the research process and how academic research can be applied to the practical problems of management in this particular industry sector. We all learned a great deal, and there is a genuine commitment to running this again in the not-too-distant future. There is now increased interest in the journal, Construction Management and Economics, and we have opened up a huge range of networking opportunities for collaborative work in the future. The next step is to set up a website for WABER, to record what we achieved at this inaugural seminar, and provide a space for discussion and development. This was an excellent venture in every respect.

Monday, 1 June 2009

St Bernadette of Soubirou's School

Because Roine is involved in research around the UK's Building Schools for the Future programme, we arranged a visit to a local primary school in Accra. St Bernadette of Soubirou's is a private sector catholic school in the district of Dansoman. We chose this School, because Sammie's mum works there as a teacher, teaching class six. The head teacher, Mrs Mary Aquiline Cato, has been Head for 22 years, and she and her colleagues were very welcoming indeed, giving us a guided tour of all the facilities. Despite the heat and humidity being so enervating, there was no air-conditioning. Indeed, there was no mains electricity at the time we visited, due to a power cut, which seems a regular feature here. Instead, a noisy generator throbbed away on the sports field, which also doubled as their assembly hall. We talked in the Head's office for a while, and met some of the teachers and admin staff, then went for a tour of the classrooms. The first one was for very young infants, and they were just about to have their mid-morning snack. Those who could afford to buy a little meat pie had one, some kids had brought a snack from home, and some had only a drink. They were sat patiently, quietly and politely, waiting to be told when to start eating, when we walked in. Whenever the Head walks into a classroom, the kids all speak in perfect unison "Good morning Mrs Cato", to which she response "good morning, how are you". The united response is "Fine, thanks, and you?", to which Mrs Cato does not respond, as far as I could tell. This little catechism happened in every room we entered, except one, where they little poppets called here "Madam" instead of her name, and she pulled them on that. Every step of the way, we were accompanied by a photographer with a still camera and a video camera, recording the visit for posterity, especially as this was an anniversary year for the school, and they wanted to include our visit as part of the annals of the anniversary.

Sam's mum was delighted to see
us again. We spent a bit of time in her classroom, and after the kids gave us the usual welcome, Sam asked them what they were doing. They had been reading about animals, so he got them to tell hi what they had been working on, and they were enthusiastic about raising their hands and answering his questions, shouting out the names of animals. It suddenly struck me that they might not have any idea who he was, or who we were, so I asked them, pointing at him, "Do you know who this is?" They went quiet, and shifted uncomfortably on their seats, clearly not sure what to say when this was a question for which they had not been prepared. I put them out of their misery by telling them he was Mrs Laryea's son, and their mouths dropped open and their eyes widened - they were nicely impressed with her brilliant offspring!

After our sweltering tour we returned to Mrs Cato's office for cold beer and sandwiches, and a chat about our mutual interests. On the way back across the school, we cam across a game of football in full swing. Some of the boys had already been given one of the footballs we had brought for the school, and the hi-vis football shirts. They were so pleased with this stuff that they put it to good use immediately. Even Sam tried to join in the kick-about, but he was not up to their standard. Back in the office, we cooled down and discussed the books we'd brought as gifts for their library, and other things we'd donated. We learned about the Ghana education system, and shared our thoughts on how it compares to the UK, particularly with regard to the interplay between people and their buildings. Apparently, the idea that the building plays an important role in the quality of education is knocked into a cocked hat by places like this! Clearly, you don't need multi-million pound facilities to teach well.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Aburi Botanic Gardens

Sunday morning, and we accept the invitation of Nada, one of Sammie's many pals, who offered to drive us to Aburi Botanic Gardens. She is the project manager of the refurbishment works in the hotel where we are staying. Why don't hotels tell you at the time of booking that they are busy refurbishing, banging, hollering, sealing off parts of the hotel for weeks on end? This is a big project, so they knew about it when we booked. Anyway, Nada likes to chat, and is one of Ghana's resident Lebanese population. She took us through miles of short-cuts through several districts of Ghana, and we were entertained with scenes of folks going about their business, buying and selling things at every possible opportunity. There were no beggars, just people selling things, and they did not pester, quickly turning to the next person if you made clear you were not interested. Road junctions were fascinating, because every time the heavy traffic slowed to a halt, dozens of traders, often with their merchandise on their heads, walked between the lines of stationary traffic selling things to the vehicle occupants. Chilled water and plantain chips seemed to be the most popular commodities, but we could have bought mirrors, exercise machines, sweets of all kinds, bread, eggs, yams, tampons, pies, furniture, anything. Apart from the furniture which stayed on the sidewalk, the rest of it was on people's heads. And the urban landscape tended to be low-rise, a never ending sprawl of huts that had been made into shops, often with religious names, like the "God is able provisions store" and the "Blessing hair cut" and so on. Although the road was tarmac, it was dreadfully potholed, sometimes with huge trenches and holes that had to be driven around. The edges of the road had no kerbs, so were breaking up, and the side roads tended to be red earth, rather than tarmac. Everywhere was buzzing with life, and there was a real friendly feel to the place, with no sense of threat or danger. A huge proportion of the buildings were unfinished, although occupied. It seems that people just run out of funds mid-way through a project, and have to suspend building operations until they can get enough money together to complete. If they don't live in the half-complete building themselves, then squatters move in immediately work stops.

When we got to Aburi, the notices at the gate were very entertaining. One warned that there was to be no passing through the gardens. It took us a while to figure that one out. Another announced a complex price list. Different prices for Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians, and for various types of children. 50 GHP was half a Cedi, and there are about two Cedis to a pound. Adult Ghanains, 1 Cedi, Foreigners, 3 Cedis. Little Ghanaian kids were charged 0.2 Cedis. They even wanted to charge anyone who wanted to take videos, up to 100 Cedis if the video-maker was commercial. Some hope! Nada had to argue and show her identity card to get the Ghanaian price, but then she gave them the difference back again as a tip "because that is how we do things here".

The gardens were clearly well past their best. Nada told us that there used to be clear labels showing which tree was which, and what all the different species were. The place was clearly past its former glory, and they even had a crashed helicopter. It smelled bad, probably urine, and had been stripped of everything that could be moved. It was hard to tell how long it had been here. Was it an exhibit, or had no one got the resources to tidy up? It was hard to tell. In a corner, near a house, one little solitary girl was gently swinging on a makeshift swing.

A little further on, we came across a tree that had a fence around it. Roine asked Sam why that particular tree might be fenced in, and two little kids appeared out of nowhere, carrying a small bag that contained fresh nutmeg. That was what the fence was for, they said, to prevent them from picking the nutmegs. They were beautiful, a black hard shell covered in a delicate tracery of a red wax-like substance. The kids wanted a lot of money for half a dozen nutmegs, and they knew the value of them so Sammie could not negotiate them down. After chatting to them for a few moments, we went on our way. It was insufferably hot and humid. After walking around the gardens and taking in the sights, we jumped back into Nada's truck and headed for a restaurant where we had a nice lunch with plenty of cold beer. They didn't really cater for vegetarians, but they were able to make a meal from an egg sandwich, some fries and some salad. At least it was all freshly cooked and nicely prepared. That evening, we went to another hotel on the beach, Labardi Beach Hotel, which was rather swish and had a brilliant buffet, and very effective air-con. Sam's brother turned up with his mum, who wanted to meet us before we went to her school tomorrow, and it was really nice to meet her at last. She only stayed an hour, though, as she had to get back home. After the meal, we wanted to go to the beach, because we could hear music. The gate from the hotel to the beach was manned, and since we were not residents, we were not really allowed through, although Sam charmed the guard and eventually he agreed we could go through. The music was not live, but recorded, and was coming from a beach bar. But it was all over. So we sat down anyway and watched the waves roll in, in the dark, while drinking more cold beer. That was Sunday.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Flight to Accra


The flight to Ghana went well. Sammie and I managed to get the seats next to the emergency exit. Roine was a few rows in front. The cabin crew were in good spirits, and as one team served food and drink from the back, the other worked from the front, and they tended to meet just where we were sitting. So we got offered most things twice, especially the wine. Every time they gave us a red wine, they offered an extra one. We were consuming them rapidly, but after an hour or so, we have accumulated at least half a dozen unopened ones. Sam went to get Roine, and he was able to sit facing us on the cabin staff seat. What a great way to pass a flight. The three of us chatted away and drank red wine for the rest of the journey, taking it in turns to go to different ends of the cabin to get more supplies. The cabin staff referred to us as having a party, and everyone else on the plane looked glum and alone, but we had a great time. We landed about 8:20 p.m. and were met by Sam's brother, Ebenezer, or Eben, in his car. We were also met by someone from the hotel, as Sam wanted to make sure that there was a backup plan. So we all made our way to the hotel around the corner. The immense heat, mid-thirties, made us glad of the air-con in the car. We checked in, and a short while later met up to go to a mall where there was a reasonable restaurant. It was a bit bland, but it was great to finally be in Africa!

First we tried Star beer. It was not particularly good, so we moved on to Club beer, which was much better. Then we tried Gulder, which seemed better again, but only because we had drunk so much. In the end, we decided that Club was the better of the beers on offer in Ghana. Beer seems to be the drink of choice here. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was well and truly knackered. What a Saturday.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Trumpet duets

Because I was originally supposed to be in Mali by now, Cathy took the kids to the in-laws in Yorkshire, and they won't be back until after I leave for Ghana on Saturday. So I was delighted when Simon texted me this morning to see what I was doing this evening. How about trumpet duets says he? Absolutely says I. You bring the beer, and I'll supply the food. What a great noisy, self-indulgent evening. Both of us have improved a lot since we last attempted duets, which was quite a while ago now. Most satisfying.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Langtree Sinfonia


Recently I started rehearsing with another orchestra, the Langtree Sinfonia, at the invitation of a friend of mine who had helped out with his trumpet at one of my Crowthorne Orchestra performances last year. Langtree Sinfonia takes its name from the School where it rehearses, having been set up there a few decades ago as an adult education class that developed into a permanent ensemble. It is interesting just how many of the community orchestras and bands started this way.


This evening we had a concert in the beautiful Dorchester Abbey which is about 19 miles North of my house. The programme was fairly standard, an overture, a concerto and a symphony:

  • Rossini - The Barber of Seville overture
  • Beethoven - Violin concerto - Soloist: Todor Nikolaev
  • Sibelius - 1st symphony
After assembling with our instruments for a formal orchestra photo, we started the concert at 7 pm. The overture was nothing special, just a warm up to get everyone going, really. The Violin Concerto had been somewhat dull in the rehearsals. Naturally we did not have the soloist with us, so it was lacking in that key aspect. Even in the play-through in the afternoon, the soloist did not play the cadenzas, which have no orchestra backing, so I was not prepared for anything special from him. However, his main cadenza was quite long, but incredibly musical and very dexterous. It was a real pleasure to be a part of that. But for me the real highlight was the Sibelius 1st Symphony. This is a marvellous piece of music, and this was the first time we had played it with timps, trombones and tuba. I have got to know the symphony very well over the last few months in rehearsals, so it was a tremendous experience playing through the whole of it. Naturally, one or two of us got lost, particular one climactic section where all we could hear from where I sat was the timps bashing away so loud that we lost our place. But it all came together at the end in a huge climax, with the sounds resounding around the old abbey. What a great evening.


Next time I might bring some people along to listen, if they can make it to such an out of the way place in the Oxfordshire countryside.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Mali - no commitment

As part of our trip to West Africa, we wanted to visit Mali. One of the cultural highlights was to be one of the regular Friday evening performances of Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra. They never perform outside Mali, but the idea is that they perform every Friday night at Hogan's Club in Bamako. I wanted to see them, but the Friday after our Ghana Seminar, it turned out that Toumani was not sure if he would even be in Mali, because he was due to play in the USA a few days afterwards, and his secretary felt he might want to travel early. Just in case, we rearranged our schedule so that we could catch him the Friday before Ghana, but Sam was in touch with the secretary trying to get confirmation that Toumani would be playing for sure. But they could not commit. Eventually, she forward the e-mail to Toumani himself, asking him if he could be sure of performing that night. We scheduled our flights and hotels, only to find it really difficult to get to Mali from anywhere other than Paris, but we were willing to spend the time travelling on badly times flights, adding four days to our trip. Then Air Burkina decided to cancel the Saturday flight, so we would now have to add five days to our trip for this possible performance. Then the hotels could not be sure they had any rooms. In the end I realised that commitment was not something that happened in Mali, and that the whole excursion was just too tenuous to be committing time and money. So with much reluctance and regret, we have cancelled the Mali leg of the journey, saving ourselves buckets of money, days of travelling and inevitable disappointment. Maybe Mali might get its act together sometime in the future?

Friday, 15 May 2009

The last can of Tsingtao

The minibar fridge in the hotel room was a good place to keep a couple of tins of Tsingtao beer for the odd moments when I wanted a drink for normal prices. Two large tins of beer for around a quid - how I appreciate the 7-11 store. But when it came time to check out of the hotel on the last morning, I found I still had a large tin of beer left. After packing everything else, I put the beer in a bag with a couple of bottles of water, one for me and one for Llewellyn, with the idea of giving it to someone before it got too warm out of the fridge. I didn't want to drink a beer at that time of the morning. I thought I would give it to one of the staff in the hotel, but they really did not look the drinking type, and they had not done anything special, anyway. I passed the doorman, and thought about giving it to him, but somehow I felt it would just confuse him. We ended up carrying it all the way to the White Star Ferry terminal. I'd almost forgotten about it when I saw two tramps drinking beer and arguing loudly in Chinese at each other. I was relieved to have found someone who would really appreciate a tin of beer, and they did. They were well pleased with the unsolicited gift, and I was happy to have added to their contentment for today.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Busy day

The Thursday of my Hong Kong trip was packed with things to do. In the morning I got up early and spent a couple of hours editing a document for a company back in UK who needed my input. After that I had breakfast, then went to the office I'd been given in Hong Kong Polytechnic University to prepare the slides for my lunch-time seminar. My topic was "Managing a peer-reviewed journal: processes and policies" and I prepared some graphs of our performance with Construction Management and Economics, to explain how we did things, and how well we did things as editors. I also explained what kind of things were likely to succeed for authors who wanted their papers to be published. The seminar was packed out, I'm glad to say, and the questions were probing and challenging. It was an enjoyable seminar, but in total must have occupied two hours.


From the seminar at HKPU, Llewellyn and I made our way to City University, HK, to meet our colleagues there and talk about the potential for future collaboration as well as have a tour of their facilities. They showed us their environmental chamber, still under construction and an improvement on the one we have in Reading, because it can split into two rooms for various kinds of experiment. They also showed us their new wind tunnel, which was really impressive with its 300 bhp motor, and an experimental area the size of a study. There is a lot that we could do together, so we had a lot to talk about, but the time soon came when we had to meet the car that was to take us to Hong Kong Island.

We went to Admiralty at the end of the afternoon in the HKPU Jaguar so that I could give an industry seminar to the HK branch of Chartered Institute of Building. We got there early enough to go for a coffee, and I set up the computer with my slides for a talk about the research I had done on the costs of tendering. Again, the room was packed out, and the the seminar went well, with plenty of questions at the end. Fortunately, I had hit the spot with my talk and highlighted things that really concerned these contractors and consultants. After this, the CPD committee of HK CIOB took us for a banquet, which was rather splendid.

After the banquet, everyone went their separate ways, but Llewellyn and I fancied a bit more beer, so we returned to Lan Kwai Fong and found a relatively quiet bar where we could sit and watch the world go by while we paid attention to some beer. Draft beer called, funnily enough, Lan Kwai Fong. The people walking by were mainly young, some surely as young as 12 or 13, and mostly having a great time dressed up and making a noise. I guess we were there until about 2 am. What a great day.

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Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom

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