04 August 2006

IT Recruitment in the UK

A recent report by the trade union Amicus claims that the work permit system may be being abused as regards to IT recruitment. The figures certainly point to a big increase in permits for IT staff: an increase from 1,800 to 30,000 per annum over a ten year period. It was also reported recently that one in five companies claim difficulties in appointing suitable IT staff, and there seems to be a widespread view that there is an IT skills shortage in the UK. My own experience is different, I work in a University where salaries are not competitive with the best jobs in industry, but in the last couple of years we have had between 40 and 120 applicants for each job we have advertised, and the general standard of candidate has been good.

Why is our experience apparently so different? It is because for most entry level jobs I do not ask for a minimum level of experience. Many companies restrict themselves to looking for high quality staff who have experience. Such people usually command higher salaries and the companies that employ them are (quite sensibly) likely to do everything they can to ensure staff retention, so relatively few of them are likely to be looking for jobs. Some employers baulk at paying the high salary usually needed to attract such staff so they look to importing people who frequently are prepared to work for less money. There are, however, in my experience a large number of talented individuals who do not qualify for many of the jobs advertised because they do not have formal experience. Everyone has to have a first job but companies who refuse to consider staff without experience are abrogating their responsibilties to take part in the training of people new to the workplace. In my view employers are hurting themselves by taking this view and missing out on some of the best staff. If you have to choose between talent and experience for an entry level job then go for talent.

I do not believe there is a shortage of IT staff in the UK - it is an artefact of the conservative attititude of many employers.

01 May 2006

J K Galbraith

J K Galbraith's death at 97 is a loss of the greatest liberal economist. He wrote many books in his life and held many high powered jobs, but it was his 1958 book The Affluent Society that made him famous. In it he pointed out the paradox of an extremely rich country with a large minority living in poverty, and the failure of right-wing economics to address this problem. As a liberal I have never really understood why right-wing parties get as much support as they do, as it involves many people voting against their own interests. Whether it is the Republicans in the US or the Conservatives in the UK, right-wing parties are basically pushing economic policies based on selfishness and greed. Of course overtly arguing for selfishness and greed is not a vote winner, so they have to be dressed up as loony economic theories that argue, for example, that the lowest paid workers should not be helped because the low pay is an incentive to work harder. High paid workers however apparently need more money as an incentive for them to increase their performance. Trickle-down theories which argued that tax cuts for the rich were the best way to help the poor were also vigourously opposed by Galbraith.

In a recent episode of The West Wing shown in the UK (The Debate, an episode which was shown live in the US), the fictional Republican candidate Arnold Vinick said at one point that he and the Democratic candidate wanted the same things - they just disagreed about the way to achieve those aims. I have heard this sentiment before from politicians, and it may be true in the fictional world of The West Wing, but mostly it is not true. I believe most right-wingers want policies that support their prejudices: they do not want a fairer society so do not support economic theories that purport to achieve it.

Galbraith lived and died in the richest country in the world, a country with a Republican president and in which 37 million people (over 12% of the population) live in poverty.

16 April 2006

West Wing Fantasy

I rarely read fiction as after reading the newspaper there seems so little time to read books. When I do have time have time it is always non-fiction I turn to. Curiously the same does not apply to the films or TV I choose to watch. We are half way through the final series of The West Wing in the UK, and the presidential election campaign theme is working well although initially I thought it was a mistake to move so much of the action away from the White House. The West Wing is fiction (although apparently some of the stories have been based on real incidents) but in some respects it is more fantasy than fiction, with an election campaign featuring two charismatic, intelligent, principled and committed politicians: Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) as the central theme. (My guess is that if this was reality Vinick, as a liberal-leaning Republican, would win comfortably because he would also appeal to many Democrats.) Sadly such candidates only seem to exist in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, such as the brilliant Aaron Sorkin who left at the end of the fourth series but whose influence remains. The series has lost something since Sorkin left but even second best West Wing is better than almost anything else on TV. Apparently the last ever episode of this series has just been shown in the US and so ends, in my opinion, the best TV drama ever to come out of America.

Back in the real world we have George W Bush as president - on this occasion I prefer the fiction.

09 April 2006

Pronunciation of Foreign Names

When I was at school (a long time ago!) I was taught that the correct pronunciation for Majorca was Ma-jaw-ka, and not something approximating to the Spanish pronunciation Ma-yor-ka. I imagine the Spanish pronunciation became common in the UK because it is a very popular holiday destinantion for people in Britain and they heard the way it was pronounced by locals. We do not, however, do the same for most other Anglicised names: Germany and Spain for example, where we have universally used English spelling and pronunciation. In Spanish and Catalan the island is called Mallorca, and that is increasingly becoming the accepted spelling in English, which at least makes it consistent with the common pronunciation. The rule (if it is a rule) that if you anglicise a foreign name you should pronounce it as if were English, does not really help for places such as Paris. This is spelt the same way in both languages, but no English speaker says Pa-ree.

Most people I know would try and pronounce someone's name as the person would themselves, but this is done inconsistently even on the BBC which used to have high standards in this area. Sports commentators seem to be the worst offenders, and they often have a lot of foreign names to to get their heads round. I am reliably informed by my tennis doubles partner (a Russion born and brought up in Moscow) that Maria Sharapova's family name should be pronounced SHA-RAP-ova and not Sharra-pova, as it commonly is in the UK. The footballer Thierry Henry's name however is always pronounced as it would be in French, or as close to French as most English native speakers can manage. I now say Ma-yor-ka and Sharaa-pova because otherwise people think I don't know the correct pronunciation!

03 April 2006


I have been taking photographs off an on for about 35 years, but like many people I tend to look at them once or twice, maybe show them to a few friends or relatives, and then put them away. The social computing site Flickr has re-awakened my interest, and encouraged me to sort through my photos and start uploading them to the Web. It is satisfying when people mark some of my photos as "Favorites" but the site is also a good way to learn from others about how to take a good photograph.
Recently one of my colleagues uploaded a photo stiched together from several shots taken with the camera on his cell phone. Given the limitations of the equipment it is a surprisingly effective shot, and prompted me to try stitching together a sequence of three photos I took last year from a cruise ship off Taormina in Sicily. I was aware of photostitching before, but had not realised the possibilities until I saw some of the examples on Flickr. At the university where I work we are investigating the posibilities of using social networking techniques (such as those used most effectively on Flickr) in learning and teaching - I think the potential is enormous.