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December 07 2012

Four short links: 7 December 2012

  1. AR Drone That Infects Other Drones With Virus Wins DroneGames (IEEE) — how awesome is a contest where a group who taught a drone to behave itself on the end of a leash, constantly taking pictures and performing facial recognition, posting the resulting images to Twitter in real-time didn’t win.
  2. BitCoin-Central Becomes Legit BankAfter all this patient work and lobbying we’re finally happy and proud to announce that Bitcoin-Central.net becomes today the first Bitcoin exchange operating within the framework of European regulations. Covered by FDIC-equivalent, can have debit or credit cards connected to the BitCoin account, can even get your salary auto-deposited into your BitCoin account.
  3. The Antifragility of the Web (Kevin Marks) — By shielding people from the complexities of the web, by removing the fragility of links, we’re actually making things worse. We’re creating a fragility debt. Suddenly, something changes – money runs out, a pivot is declared, an aquihire happens, and the pent-up fragility is resolved in a Black Swan moment.
  4. xcharts (GitHub) — sweet charts in Javascript.

June 07 2012

Commerce Weekly: Identifying real-time consumer intent

Here's what caught my attention in the commerce space this week.

Responding to real-time consumer intent

LocalResponse LogoA new survey by behavioral commerce company SteelHouse shows that mobile commerce is getting more social. Mediabistro shared an infographic produced by SteelHouse that highlights a few important points for mobile commerce:

"... one-third of customers state browsing for items as the number one reason why they use a retailer's apps, ahead of looking for discounts and deals (26 percent) and making purchases (22 percent). Overall, however, 66 percent of consumers prefer purchasing from a retailer's website than via their app."

Though the national survey was small — just 309 consumers across the U.S. were surveyed — the numbers confirm that social media is changing the way we shop.

Mashable took a look this week at four startups that are revolutionizing social ecommerce. Of the four, LocalResponse's platform seemed to make the most of mobile. The post describes the product as "a social advertising platform that aggregates public posts and 'check-ins' across multiple platforms to help brands and businesses identify intent and respond to it." The important note about this company is the way it's making use of real-time data. Mashable reports:

"Targeting data, such as behavioral, demographic or contextual, is usually approximated. LocalResponse's platform is able to identify where someone is, when they are there, and what they are saying about it. Marketers act on the consumer's real-time intent by converting people with exclusive offers or coupons via mobile at point-of-sale."

According to a post at Mobile Commerce Daily, making use of consumer data to discern consumer shopping behavior on an individual and geolocational level not only will ensure a future for mobile check-in platforms, but also will be the key for brands to better connect with consumers.

X.commerce harnesses the technologies of eBay, PayPal and Magento to create the first end-to-end multi-channel commerce technology platform. Our vision is to enable merchants of every size, service providers and developers to thrive in a marketplace where in-store, online, mobile and social selling are all mission critical to business success. Learn more at x.com.

Another centuries-old business goes all-in on digital

Move over Encyclopaedia Britannica. A 350-year-old post office would like to join the club of centuries-old businesses stepping up to embrace the digital age. A post at Fast Company reports that the British Post Office, established in 1660, is launching an NFC-based payment system in each of its 11,500 locations, making it the "biggest adopter of contactless payments in Europe," according to the post. Consumers will be able to ship packages and buy stamps using NFC-enabled debit and credit cards — and they won't even need to sign or enter a PIN for purchases less than £20.

The Fast Company post also takes a look at other mobile payment activity in the U.K., including the launch of the PayPal in-Store App, new NFC-enabled phones, and NFC ticketing.

A new problem for banks: Staying "top of wallet"

The digital disruption unsettling the retail and publishing industries' brick-and-mortar stores may have found an additional target: brick-and-mortar banks. A study (PDF) released this week by Carlisle and Gallagher shows that mobile wallets pose a threat to traditional banking. Carlisle and Gallagher's Peter Olynick discussed the results in a press release:

"People have already slowed their use of cash and checks in favor of credit and debit cards. Within five years, half of today's smart phone users will be using their phones and mobile wallets as their preferred method for payments. These customers will be using better tools to help them optimize transaction choices. Banks need to proactively consider how their products will stay 'top of wallet' in the new mobile wallet world."

In light of the study, financial analyst Peter Wannemacher told PCWorld that "[f]inancial institutions risk ending up as back-end funding sources for mobile wallets and payment products owned by other brands, who operate the front-end, consumer-facing aspects of the interaction and transactions." He says that traditional banks will need to offset the convenience of mobile wallets and mobile banking by offering compelling services.

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March 23 2012

Goldman Sachs talks to Norman Foster over new European HQ in London

Bank holds discussions with Foster and Partners, Kohn Pedersen Fox and SOM over redevelopment of Farringdon site

Goldman Sachs is pressing ahead with plans for a new European headquarters in London by holding discussions with Lord Foster and two other leading firms of architects.

The US investment bank – whose boss has gone on an internal "muppet hunt" – has discussed plans to build a new campus for its European operations on Farringdon Street with Foster and Partners, the architects behind the Gherkin and Wembley Stadium, and two US practices, Kohn Pedersen Fox and SOM. KPF designed Goldman's existing London offices.

The bank, which employs about 6,000 people in London, wants to redevelop a 1m sq ft site on Farringdon Street, around the corner from its current main offices, although construction is not imminent. It has long owned one building at the site and recently bought an adjacent one. Both are empty.

Goldman's plans suffered a setback in November when the government granted Grade II listed status to 1960s murals on the front of Fleet Building, which used to be London's largest telephone exchange. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport followed advice from English Heritage that the nine ceramic tile murals by Dorothy Annan, which depict pylons, cables, telegraph poles and generators, were of "historic interest" to the telecoms industry and had "relative rarity as surviving works of 1960s mural art".

Goldman had opposed the listing of the murals and relocating them could be costly and time-consuming.

The bank's two main offices are in Fleet Street, while the firm's asset management division is based near the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's cathedral.

Possible candidates for the management of the bank's scheme include Tishman Speyer, which already managed the construction of Goldman's $2.4bn (£1.5bn) global headquarters in New York and rival US project management firm Hines. Goldman reportedly hired Tishman Speyer last June for general real estate advice in London. The company's finance chief Russell Makowsky previously spent 20 years at Goldman in the New York, Hong Kong and London offices.

Goldman again made headlines this week after it emerged that the chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, had begun scouring emails for use of the word "muppets," a fortnight after one of its London-based bankers resigned amid much furore, claiming that was what some people at the bank called clients.

The bank declined to comment on its plans for a new headquarters.


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December 21 2011

Does the stolen Barbara Hepworth sculpture show that caring makes us weak? | Zoe Williams

The stolen sculpture raises the fear that 1,000 people who want a good society are no match for one person who doesn't care

It's hard to lose a statue from a park and not think this marks a new direction for society, one in which we're headed somewhere considerably worse. Trevor Moore, from Dulwich Park Friends, said losing Barbara Hepworth's Two Forms (Divided Circle) was like "losing a finger". I liked the understatement of his sorrow – it sounds like a small thing, but actually you'd miss it for the rest of your life.

In 2005, Henry Moore's Reclining Figure was stolen from the estate of the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, Hertfordshire. Funnily enough, it was almost exactly the same time of year (19 December), which might suggest that looming festivity sharpens your appetite and dulls your sense of public duty. But these are only two data points, so let's not get carried away.

On the plus side, that first theft did not mark a hideous breach in the fabric of society through which could be glimpsed the dystopic future: frightened hordes scurrying home through denuded streets and parks, nothing sacred, not even benches. It's interesting how carefree everything was then: the headline covering the theft in the Guardian was "Oi! Who lifted that two-tonne Henry Moore?" Compare, for its sobriety, "Barbara Hepworth sculpture stolen from London park".

On the downside, police by 2009 were satisfied that they knew what had happened to Reclining Figure. It had been dismembered shortly after the theft and sold for scrap. It is philistinism on a gruesome scale, but it's also a striking, two-tonne example of what the economist Thomas Shelling calls "one of the lamentable principles in human productivity; that it is easier to destroy than to create … The power to hurt – to destroy things that somebody treasures – is a kind of bargaining power."

That bargaining power wasn't even leveraged in the Moore case: they didn't hold it for ransom. The foundation offered a £10,000 reward which the thieves eschewed, choosing instead to flog it for a grand and a half. The fear is that the same will happen to the Hepworth. While I can, from a cultural perspective, see the teeth of the chainsaw going into the work as the big travesty, from a socioeconomic perspective this is an act of vandalism against that founding principle of the market – that transactions are undertaken voluntarily – and everybody wins. When you throw someone into the mix who doesn't care that a statue's true value is £500,000, and cares still less about its emotional value to the community, and will trash all that for £1,500, that person has a lot of power. It's caring that makes you weak.

The reason this is such a blow at this peculiar time is that the free market – the fundamental understanding of society where we exchange time for money and money for stuff and everybody wins – isn't working out. There is a full spectrum of explanations for the failure. On the right, it's because governments interfered, over-regulated, overdid the handouts and overspent. On the left, it's because government privatised, outsourced, didn't regulate, and created a corporate plutocracy by failing to protect wages, grouting the gaps with benefits and ultimately subsidising super-profits. There are centrist arguments that blame the legerdemain of financial instruments – just one giant, apolitical "oops".

Yet underneath each narrative is the same antihero, this person who doesn't care. Whether that's the feral underclass or the head of HMRC, the scrap-metal merchant or the boss of Goldman Sachs, the underlying fear is the same: that 1,000 people who care desperately about a stable society are no match for one person who doesn't care at all. So while the right bandies about tales of nihilistic rioters and philistine thieves, the left indulges in its orgy of judgment at the phenomenal greed of rich people.

The American journalist Max Abelson put together a billionaire's riposte, where a group of chief executives answer the charge that they're paid too much by calling everyone an imbecile. What's extraordinary is the highhanded carelessness, the sincerity of their belief that they're doing the world a favour with their nugatory commitment to taxation, and it's the people who don't earn enough to pay tax who are the problem ("You have to have skin in the game," said Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone). It's thrilling and nauseating in equal parts: they're so powerful and yet so irredeemable – but at least it makes you feel you understand. If some people don't care, no wonder we are where we are. It only takes a few.

But I think this is a comforting fallacy. Money doesn't really denature people, and nor does poverty. If people behave like nihilists, it's because something has gone awry with their peer norms: they've got in with the wrong crowd. We end this year looking at a lot of wrong crowds – a corporate crowd that avoids tax like crazy, a criminal crowd with new impunity, a banking crowd that thinks of itself as a Calvinist elect, without the self-denial. It's a huge task of regulating and prosecuting and working to remake the norms, but the alternative – to choose a villain and simply hate them with a passion (mine is Philip Green, thank you for asking) – is just a pantomime: enjoyable, but not very enlightening.


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November 09 2011

Reality check: Student protest posters and placards

Student protests have been notable for their distinctive placards. Jessica Shepherd examines what messages the demonstrators have chosen and why

5.39pm:

We are going to draw the blog to a close now. Thanks for all your comments and to all those who sent me pictures of their banners and placards.

3.58pm:

'Even Thatcher didn't privatise universities'

The government's white paper is unlikely to turn state-funded universities into private ones.

Our state-funded universities are not like our hospitals; they are not part of a government department. They are separate incorporated bodies.

And while they receive less than they used to in public funds - their budget for teaching, research and buildings has been cut by 12.6% for the current academic year - they are still in receipt of £6.5bn from the government this year. Even the money universities receive from tuition fees is under-written by government.

It's true to say that the government is asking universities to act more like private businesses. It wants them to compete with each other more and it is encouraging for-profits to offer degrees. But most of our state-funded institutions are a long way off rejecting public funding.

3.19pm: Support from the US for those protesting today thanks to @ennikukka

3.07pm: Some of the banners are not really reality-checkable, but definitely worth showing... Check out this one

Channel 4 News reporting that one banner reads: "Nick Clegg broke my heart"

2.04pm:

'Fight for free education'

Perhaps in an ideal world, education would be free. But wouldn't that mean making those who never graduate pay through their taxes for those who do? Those taxes would be pretty high too - 40% of young women from all backgrounds now go to university, compared with 32% of young men.

The Green Party is the only mainstream party that still campaigns for a university education to be free. It argues that higher education could be funded through a business education tax levied on the top 4% of UK companies, an idea suggested by the University and College Union, the lecturers' trade union.

Tuition fees were first introduced in the UK in 1998. They have steadily risen and, next autumn, universities will be allowed to charge up to £9,000 per year. It seems at best unlikely that they'll go down anytime soon.

1.42pm: HeardinLondon has tweeted this picture.

Let's hope all protesters are like this one ...

1.32pm:

For those who want a bit of light relief from the more serious banners and placards ...

1.23pm: We're getting some good images of posters, placards and stickers to our Flickr group.

Here's a slideshow of the submissions so far:

1.06pm:

'Education not business, stop the white paper'

One of the most controversial parts of the government's university reforms, published in a white paper this summer, was the opening up of higher education to private colleges. The students of for-profit colleges and universities will be entitled to the grants and loans that their peers at state-funded institutions are. The worry is that these colleges will just cherry-pick cheaper courses, such as law and business, and ignore the high-cost ones, such as science and technology. The for-profits are, in many cases, "no frills" with few student facilities apart from a canteen and their lecturers often do not conduct research. The US has come a cropper over for-profit universities with some institutions under investigation for false accounting, fraud and high drop-out rates. The feeling among many is that these institutions are far less accountable than publicly-funded ones. It's bums on seats, not quality education that matters, some fear. However, it's too early to say whether the business interests of these organisations will override their mission to offer a good education.

The white paper goes before the Commons in May next year. It's probably too late to stop everything that is in it, but academics, students, MPs and others are certainly not too late to suggest improvements.

12.20pm:

'No cuts, defend public services'

Michael Chessum, who has helped organise today's demonstration on behalf of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, has told me some of his friends will be holding banners with the message above.

Are our public services under attack? The answer is most certainly yes. The coalition has told councils, hospitals and schools that they need to make cuts, but that should be to so-called back office staff, not the frontline. If organisations made themselves more efficient, by sharing services with a neighbouring council for example, they would make the savings they need, ministers imply.

The NHS is meant to have been protected. But the cuts are so deep, hospitals are having to make lose doctors and nurses.

My colleague, Denis Campbell, reported last month that among the hospitals bearing the brunt of the NHS's £20bn efficiency drive is Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospitals trust in Berkshire. It is considering closing or reducing services at Heatherwood hospital in Ascot to reduce its £10m debt. That could see services such as surgery, orthopaedics, scanning and children's services cut or closed. It has already closed its birth centre owing to financial problems and staff absence. The trust, which has 3,500 staff and a £220m turnover, needed an £18m government loan last year to stay afloat.

Cuts may need to be made, but the sacrifice to cut the fiscal debt is, as Polly Toynbee has written "a permanent human deficit".

11.36am: We've just created a Flickr group to help you show us your pictures of placards and posters here. Click on the link to find out more about how the group works and how to submit photos to the pool - hopefully we'll also be able to feature a selection on the blog.

10.41am: Alex Peters-Day, general secretary of the London School of Economics Student Union, has been in touch with me to say he is going to be holding a banner that says "Condoms protect students, ConDems neglect students".

There's little doubt that condoms do indeed protect students - and everyone else. But have the coalition neglected students?

Last year, as part of the spending review, ministers announced they would be getting rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a weekly payment of between £10 and £30 for 16- to 18-year-olds whose household income was under £30,800. The allowance was ineffective at encouraging the poorest students to stay in education, ministers said. A replacement scheme of bursaries for the poorest students administered by colleges was unveiled in March, but the abolition of the EMA was seen by many as an act of neglect towards poorer students.

Under the new system of higher tuition fees, future students will owe money for longer and at a higher rate of interest than they have done in the past, but whether this can be called "neglect" is up for debate. Many graduates will actually pay a lot less per year and per month under the new system. Martin Lewis' helpful calculations show that if a graduate earns £40,000 under the current system, they pay back £2,250 per year and £187.50 per month out of their pay packet. Under the new system, they'll pay £1,710 per year and £142.50 per month.

The coalition is, in many ways, giving students more power. Universities that are successful in attracting students will be allowed to expand. This will mean universities do everything in their power to give students a good experience thereby improving their reputations. Ministers have promised students more information, such as how many contact hours universities offer.

The previous government was much more generous in its funding of universities, but it also squeezed the number of students so that many of those who wanted to go to university couldn't.

10.27am: At least 10,000 protesters will attend today's demonstration in central London against education cuts, the near-trebling of tuition fees and the government's university reforms.

As with all protests, those taking part will be carrying placards for a variety of causes. I'll be analysing what the banners and posters say. Join in below the line or contact me at jessica.shepherd@guardian.co.uk or on Twitter @jessshepherd1 or feel free to send me your own photos of posters and placards.

'Tax the banks not the students'

Banks already pay tax - it's called corporation tax and is levied on the profits they make. Disappointingly for some, there is no appetite from the three main political parties to raise corporation tax.

Is the implicit meaning in this banner perhaps "tax the bankers' bonuses"? Ed Miliband has called for a tax on bankers' bonuses, but Nick Clegg has urged for the bosses of our banks to instead "show extra sensitivity and transparency" when awarding those bonuses. It doesn't seem as if there is going to be a tax on bankers' bonuses anytime soon.

One of the other inherent messages in this placard is that students are going to be taxed under the new tuition fees system that comes into place in 2012. The government has been careful not to call it a tax, but the demonstrators holding this placard are right: it is in all but name. It is repaid through the income tax system, the amount you repay increases with earnings and you only repay it over a certain amount. However, it does end once you have repaid what you borrowed plus the interest.


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June 09 2011

Battle for City's Broadgate site hots up

William Hill giving odds that Jeremy Hunt will not save 'historic' 1980s complex from demolition for new UBS headquarters

Expectations have increased that furious lobbying from the City is likely to prevent the listing of the 1980s-built complex in Broadgate that has become a tug of war between financiers and conservationists.

For the first time bookmaker William Hill has opened a book on a building listing and is giving 4-7 that culture secretary Jeremy Hunt will not save the complex.

English Heritage last week recommended that the entire 1980s development, designed by architect Peter Foggo, be given statutory protection at Grade II* level, dealing a major blow to British Land's plans to tear down 4 and 6 Broadgate to make way for a new "groundscraper" building that would house a £340m headquarters for Swiss bank UBS.

Although the law states that the listing decision should be made on the basis of architectural and historic factors alone, Hunt is under pressure from the City of London corporation to ignore his official adviser and choose not to list it.

The City argues that the new scheme is vital to maintain confidence in it as a banking centre. Hunt's decision on Broadgate is due in about two months' time, after submissions from British Land, the local authority and other interested parties.

A spokesman for William Hill said this was the first time it had offered odds in a listing case. "We believe this decision will be as difficult to call as a photofinish but English Heritage needs to upset the odds to come out on top."

The City of London Corporation had approved British Land's 700,000 sq ft scheme, and building was to start this summer, with UBS planning to move in by 2014. The corporation's policy chairman, Stuart Fraser, is due to meet communities secretary Eric Pickles next week to lobby for the UBS building. He said: "The Broadgate buildings aren't worth preserving or listing. They aren't of great architectural merit. Listing Broadgate will send out the wrong message. UBS would probably give up. Eric Pickles is very keen on bureaucracy not getting in the way of economic development."

Catherine Croft, director of heritage group The Twentieth Century Society, which is campaigning in favour of listing, expressed surprise at the odds. "I think it is fairly extraordinary because it suggests that William Hill thinks factors other than the accepted criteria [for listing] may affect the minister's decision," she told weekly trade paper Building Design.

"City boys do like gambling of course but Hunt needs to make his decision on the basis of architectural and historic interest. It would be very wrong for him to be affected by any other factor."

Croft added that she believed there were many other locations in the City suitable for the proposed UBS building, which has been designed by one of the architects responsible for the Gherkin, Ken Shuttleworth of Make Architects.

The planned building, at 5 Broadgate, would boast four trading floors each capable of holding 750 traders and has been described by Shuttleworth as an "engine of finance" with a design resembling an immense machine-tooled block of aluminium.

A spokesman for Hunt's Department of Culture, Media and Sport, noted that it was responsible for regulating both heritage and gambling. "It is always good to see two areas of DCMS come together but, as we always say when it comes to gambling, don't bet more than you can afford to lose," he said.


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January 02 2011

Swiss miss

The proposed new HQ of Swiss bank UBS is an aloof fortress that ignores its responsibilities to the wider community

Good architects should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, meet their clients' needs, design well-made and sustainable buildings, and also add something to their building's setting, such as work with their surroundings to create a place more harmonious/ fascinating/ humane/ pleasurable than it was before. 5 Broadgate, a mighty money factory proposed for the City of London, fails to do this, even though its architect is Ken Shuttleworth of Make, who has been lavishly praised by all three of the chairmen, to date, of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe). "He is one of the best hidden talents in the UK," said one. The second said he was one of the top five architects in the world. The third called his work "extraordinary". Could an architect so brilliant not masticate while ambulating?

5 Broadgate meets every wish of its future occupier, the Swiss bank UBS. It offers 700,000 sq feet of office space, including a stack of dealer floors the size of football pitches. It aims to set high standards of sustainability. It will be, Shuttleworth says, "an expression of the stability of the bank".

To achieve all this requires something big, consuming the sites of two existing buildings. A pedestrian route across the site will be closed, forcing people to squeeze round the edges of the new building's bulk. A covered arcade through the block might have been possible, but this is banned for security reasons, as are shops or cafes at the building's base. The ban is a deal-breaker, apparently: if the City's planners insisted on these humanising touches, UBS would up and go – to Canary Wharf or, worse, Frankfurt.

You might think that UBS is being unduly touchy – it could surely hire enough security to keep al-Qaida or student rioters out of an arcade or coffee shop – but it is not surprising that the planners would want to avert a Swiss flounce. Given that the shaky edifice of the British economy is in thrall to financial services, they would not want to bring down such a heavy blow for the sake of a bit of permeability for pedestrians. There is not much Shuttleworth can do with these macroeconomic forces, and it could be argued that the accommodation of brute finance is what the special enclave of the City of London is about. He can't pretend his building is not big. But he could try to reconcile the scale of the new building with its surroundings.

The site is in Broadgate, the 1980s development highly praised for the unity of its design, for the ways it makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts and its open spaces more important than individual buildings. There have been calls for Broadgate to be listed, which would be overly precious, but one might hope that a new building respects its principles. It shouldn't try to mimic its neighbours, but its rhythms, proportions and materials could create resonances or rapport between the new and the old.

Instead, Make's design announces with maximum force that it is an aloof fortress. Bankers, it says, are people apart from the rest of us. Its windows are defensive horizontal strips in a cliff-like wall. There are terraces high up for the use of UBS staff, but this glimmer of life is suppressed by the hard geometry. It is armour-plated in aluminium (an energy-ravenous material, by the way, although Shuttleworth says he will work with manufacturers to make this the greenest possible aluminium). There is no softening: not a curve or a piece of greenery. The existing buildings, which have layers of stone screens in contrast to the new one's sheer metal, are ignored. We are invited to admire it as a vast piece of sculpture, where the bank's wish for an expression of power perfectly aligns with the architect's desire for a singular artistic statement.

One of the best things that ever happened to Shuttleworth was when Make, now seven years old, was newly founded. His former employer, Norman Foster, had him erased from a group photograph like a victim of Stalin's purges, which supported the image of him as the suppressed creative genius behind Foster projects such as the Gherkin. With the help of some fervent press, a legend was created of "Ken the Pen", a dazzling whiz of a draftsman. He also combined his radical reputation with securing positions of influence. He became a Cabe commissioner and a member of its Design Review Committee, which judges the quality of significant projects. He became Cabe's "champion for schools and the East Midlands".

Commissions flooded in, for significant commercial developments, for private homes for property developers, for the Olympic handball arena, for schools. Make's reputation rode high, even when its completed buildings consisted mostly of a judo hall in Dartford, and the Jubilee Campus at Nottingham University, a set of wedges mottled with a psoriasis of red cladding. The campus was nominated for Building Design magazine's Carbuncle Cup, for the worst building of the year, albeit also for the prime minister's Better Public Building award, sponsored by Cabe.

Make presents itself as everything Foster and Partners are not: collegiate, open to ideas from even its most junior staff, and with no house style. Publications about the practice include pictures of staff weddings and holiday snaps. Profits and credit are shared. It calls itself a "studio", stressing its creative side. Shuttleworth says he wants to create "the best buildings in the world" and above all be sustainable. "I want to save the planet," he says.

Make stress how important clients are, how each one is special, and how its buildings respond to each unique set of needs. Clients of Make praise the company as responsive and professional, and these virtues are obviously important ones. What is lacking is a core of principles: a Make building tends to be as good as its brief, with Ken the Pen's flourishes giving a dressing of art. If UBS wants a defensive-aggressive citadel, it gets it. On another site in the City of London, called London Wall Place, where the planners are being more demanding, it has produced a more subtle design. In Birmingham they have built the Cube, a block of shops, offices and flats, which brings a bit of flash and sparkle to a site that probably needed it.

Make is a perfect distillation of 00s architecture, where genuine professionalism, slick stylishness, and a real if well-advertised commitment to the environment are boosted by hype and infinite adaptability to the demands of the market. This combination makes it an above-average commercial practice. It does not make its employees the hidden geniuses, or the world-top-five architects that their mates at Cabe or some excitable journalists claimed them to be. It says much for the poverty of architectural discourse that anyone could have imagined that they were.


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September 21 2010

Open source cuts microlending complexity

Integrating any sort of technology into the developing world requires a deep understanding of the available tools and usage patterns. The degree of difficulty -- already considerable -- increases exponentially when you're dealing with bank and financial software.

The Grameen Foundation's Mifos Initiative is tackling those integration challenges in a unique way. Rather than develop proprietary software with hundreds of country-by-country variations, Mifos is making its code available via open source. Financial institutions can repurpose the software for their unique microlending needs.

In the following Q&A, Mifos director of engineering Adam Feuer explains the rationale for pursuing the open source option. He also discusses some of the unique mobile and integration challenges his team is encountering.



Mifos is an open source technology. Why did you go that route?




Adam FeuerAdam Feuer: Mifos source code is free and you can download it from our website. We're hosted on SourceForge.

We chose open source for several different reasons. Transparency is one: We believe that banking software, especially microfinance software used in the developing world, needs to be transparent and open. That means open source so that people can see how it works and verify that it's operating correctly.

We also believe Mifos should be free so you can modify the software and make it suit your application. If we went out of business (not likely to happen but it is possible), or if people didn't like the direction we were going, they wouldn't be stuck with what we had accomplished or the direction we were going. That helps banks feel a lot more secure.

How many contributors are touching the code?

AF: Mifos is a small open source project, but it's spread all over the world. Twenty of the 40 or so contributors are paid by the Grameen Foundation and they directly report to me. Another 10 contributors are third-party developers who are working with us to develop software. They work for partner organizations. Another 10 or 15 are volunteer developers who are just contributing to make the world a better place.

We have plenty of work and would love to talk to you if you are interested in helping and you program in Java or JavaScript and you know user interface technologies.

How are you addressing mobile?

AF: In Africa and India you send SMS messages with your phone to access your bank account. It takes a few messages back and forth to move money from one account to another or to make a payment. But it's way better than having to drag yourself across a dusty city and use public transport to visit a bank branch where people may or may not discriminate against you because you're poor. Toward that end, we're integrating with a major mobile money system in Africa, a prototype called M-PESA. There's also a mobile money system in India that we're looking at for pilot projects.

What are the major challenges you're encountering?

AF: Information technology in the developing world is a challenge for a variety of reasons. One of them is finding power to run a computer. Finding a good Internet connection is also challenging. We have to design our software to work in these conditions.

Another problem is that if you know information technology in say Kenya or India, you can get a better job. So microfinance banks have a hard time keeping employees that know anything about computers. We have to design our software so that it's relatively easy to use and easy to learn. You can be sure that you'll be training new people on it very frequently.

The main challenge that we are facing right now is how to open Mifos up in a modular way so that we can enable someone to write a plugin to customize Mifos for their particular country or environment. We see supporting plugins as the way to welcome everybody in the world to the promise of usable financial services for the poor.


This excerpt was edited, condensed and adapted for Radar. The full interview, available at the PayPal Developer Network, is part of a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal exploring the future of payment.



Related:

June 04 2010

Lehman sale to include early Hirst

• Lehman Brothers art sale to raise $10m to help pay creditors
• Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter and John Currin works included

Art collectors will get another chance to snap up remnants from the office walls of the world's most notorious failed bank in an auction by Sotheby's in September of over 400 items from Lehman Brothers' once renowned hoard, including work by Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter and Félix González-Torres, following a smaller sale from the company's collection last October.

Liquidators to the defunct Wall Street firm announced today that a large slice of Lehman's collection will go under the hammer in September in an auction expected to raise $10m (£6.89m). The proceeds will go to creditors who are still owed billions of dollars following the bank's spectacular collapse in September 2008.

Kelly Wright, an adviser to Lehman's estate, described the lots as a "visionary" collection: "Many of the works were acquired from cutting-edge and emergent artists who have since evolved into the vanguards of the contemporary art world."

Lehman inherited a significant chunk of the collection when it bought a US asset management firm, Neuberger Berman, in 2003. Neuberger's founder, Roy Neuberger, had been an enthusiastic corporate acquirer of art and Lehman subsequently built on his stockpile.

Following Lehman's bankruptcy, employees bought out Neuberger Berman, which survives with 1,600 employees and $180bn of assets under management. Neuberger exercised an option to purchase several hundred works from Lehman but the items left behind are to go on the block.

An early Damien Hirst wall piece called We've Got Style (The Vessel Collection – Blue) ( is set to be the biggest seller with an estimated price tag of $800,000 to $1.2m. A cabinet full of ceramic objects, the piece was produced before Hirst's art hit the headlines when work such as his shark preserved in formaldehyde attracted record multimillion-pound prices.

Other valuable items in the auction include The Long Way Home by China's Liu Ye, a 1992 abstract painting by Gerhard Richter and John Currin's portrait Shakespeare Actress which is set to fetch $500,000 to $700,000.

The Sotheby's sale is the second major batch of Lehman works to be sold – an earlier, less valuable, collection of contemporary art including work by David Hockney and Roy Lichtenstein was auctioned off in Philadelphia seven months ago, raising $1.35m.

Winding up Lehman Brothers is expected to take three to five years according to the specialist insolvency firm Alvarez & Marsal, which is handling the task. The estate recently closed the last sale of Lehman's private equity businesses. The process is being managed carefully, with many Lehman assets still being "worked" in the hope of gaining an appreciation in value as the global economy recovers. The estate is suing Barclays, which bought many of Lehman's US operations, for allegedly negotiating a "secret" $5bn discount on its purchase.


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March 30 2009

March 25 2009

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