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Rollright Stones

Rollright_Stones_(96100107)

 

I learnt yesterday that the Cotswold village of Little Rollright was up for sale for the princely sum of £18m. My first reaction? I wonder if Steve Winwood knows about this. Why? Because somewhere in the back of my mind, a song started playing:

 

Many of these

Can be seen

In quiet places, fields of green

Of hedgerow lanes with countless names

But the only thing that remains

Are the Roll Right Stones

Winwood/Capaldi, Roll Right Stones: Traffic: Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, 1973

 

I can still remember the first time I heard the song, the first time I held a bashed-up copy of the album in my hands. I can still remember wondering whether all Traffic albums were shaped like this:

 

Traffic_-_Shoot_Out_at_the_Fantasy_Factory

The only other Traffic album I’d seen and touched was The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, an album I loved so much I now own the original artwork to the cover below. I don’t think anyone else bid for it at the auction!

:

Traffic_-_The_Low_Spark_of_High_Heeled_Boys

 

I’d heard other Traffic albums, but I’d never actually seen those in the flesh: usually they were copies of copies on cassette tape, this was Calcutta in the early 1970s. “Foreign” albums took time to get there, if ever. No Traffic album was ever released locally, so we relied on the booming Grateful-Dead-Taper-like trade in informally recorded cassettes, the higher the quality, the higher the price. Pre-recorded cassettes were rare, as were original LPs. For these, we were beholden to the influx of hippies eager to convert their vinyl into various other substances, usually of the smoking variety. [And yes they inhaled, Mr President]. There were other routes, but rare and sparse. We could go down to the Kidderpore Docks and walk down Smuggler’s Row there, to see if there were any Taiwanese “imports” of our favourite music there: photocopied covers sealed in thin polythene, Chinese titles and descriptions, cheap ultralight vinyl. Very rarely, someone in our circle of acquaintances, usually very well-heeled, would actually leave India’s shores and bring some albums back. Occasionally, foreign diplomats would hold some sort of yard sale as they disposed of their belongings before moving on, and you could get rich pickings there. But most of the time, it was off to Free School St to tap into the hippie trade.

 

I can’t help but smile as I think of myself singing along with Roll Right Stones without a clue as to what the lyrics meant. No internet. No Web. No Wikipedia. No personal computer. No mobile phone.

But I was curious, so I found out, once it was possible for me to find such things out. When you’re passionate about music you’re interested in everything about music: the people, the places, the times, everything. I was lucky to be born at a time when the vein of music was rich. I still spend most of my time listening to the albums made between the early 1960s and the mid 1970s, there are probably over a thousand really good albums made then. Of course I listen to Indian classical music, particularly flute; to Western classical music through the ages; to various forms of jazz; to a lot of folk; and even to some stuff made since 1974. I’m sure there’s been incredible music produced since, incredible music produced before. I just don’t have the time to listen to everything, and if I had to choose, then choosing the music that’s familiar to me is a natural thing to do. Especially when it’s so good.

Such specialisation leads to joyous possibilities. I’ve been able to watch many of my 1960s and 1970s heroes perform live, in concert. I’ve been able to meet a bunch of them personally, have conversations with them.

And I’ve been able to visit places that were just phrases in songs until I visited them.

Like Roll Right Stones. Or Penny Lane. Or Strawberry Fields. Sitting at the Albert Hall and thinking about holes in Blackburn. Standing on the platform at Preston, or walking down Hampstead Fair. Experiencing the fog on the Tyne. Finding out where Omemee was (though in the end I couldn’t get anyone to take me there. But I managed to get to Massey Hall). Passing Newport News and thinking about the Navy man stationed there, or seeing signs for Biloxi and asking myself, was Narcisissma from Pomona or Biloxi? I could go on, but won’t. You get my drift.

Sometimes my visits had tinges of sadness in them. Going past the Dakota Apartments; wandering around Pere Lachaise; listening to the music at Threadgills; having steak at Croce’s. [Incidentally, if you’re ever in San Diego, make sure you go there. Especially if you’re a fan of Jim Croce. Ingrid Croce is still there most days.

There are places I remember.

Whatever our memories, we tend to remember the people we were with when those memories were formed. The places we were. The times we had. The music we listened to. The food we ate. The books we read.

People, places and times. The basis of memories.

Music, food and books. So often, triggers to those memories, embedded in our senses. Not just sight and sound and taste, but touch and texture too, even smell. Like smelling the valves heating up in the radio as it came on.

We live in a connected world where everything can be recorded, and our very concept of memory will be challenged. Recorded things can be changed more easily than what’s in our heads.

We live in a world where we use our senses to engage with information, perhaps like we used to do. No more keyboards, no more printed material. And that too will come with its challenges.

We can spend hours, perhaps days, arguing about how our world is being made worse by technology. It’s not the technology, it’s what we do with it.

A point made beautifully by Yiibu here. People in emerging nations are doing magical things with those very technologies.

In the meantime, I give thanks that I can write a post like this, making all the references I want to make, using a medium that others can read all over the world, if they so choose.

There are places I remember.

 

Posted in Four pillars .


Can you replace a warped mind with a computer? And can anyone code? Ruminations on a lazy Saturday

Some people used to think I have a warped mind. [Maybe some people think I still have a warped mind, but that's a different matter]. As a teenager and as a young man, I was known for my interest in crosswords, in Scrabble, in chess, in duplicate bridge, in mathematical puzzles, in arcane trivia. This post is about one of those interests: crosswords. More specifically, this is about the Times Crossword. The London Times Crossword, in case you’re one of those who thinks there’s more than one Times; that’s like saying there’s more than one Open. There is only one Open, and only one Times. [Today, there are many crosswords in the paper; there used to be only one, the "hard" cryptic, and that's the one I refer to here].

Crosswords akin to the Times have been around for just over a hundred years now, and have a rich and wonderful history. If you’re interested, read the Wikipedia entry for starters. If you’re interested in stories about crosswords, you should delve into at least two that I summarise below.

D-Day.

There’s a wonderful tale about how a gentleman named Leonard Dawe, then headmaster of Strand School, compiled crosswords for the Telegraph in his spare time. He came across the radar of the powers-that-spook in the months leading up to D-Day by doing something quite striking: he encoded the words JUNO, GOLD, SWORD, UTAH and OMAHA, the codenames of the five beaches, as answers to clues in the period immediately preceding the Normandy landings. In the week before, he added the words MULBERRY and NEPTUNE, the codenames for the floating harbours and for the naval assault. And to cap it all, he used the word OVERLORD, the codename for the entire operation, five days before D-Day. Now remember that there was no NSA in those days, no PRISM, no e-mail. GCHQ would not exist for another couple of years, but predecessor units like the Government Code and Cypher Unit (GC&CS) did. History has it that there was always a close relationship between people involved with crosswords and people involved with setting and breaking codes, so it should not surprise any of you that Leonard Dawe’s efforts came to the attention of GC&CS, or that he was taken in for questioning. The matter was never resolved, though I quite like the hypothesis that Dawe may have crowdsourced the codenames via his students, who were called in regularly to suggest words for inclusion as answers. They in turn would have heard the codenames in use by the soldiers, airmen and naval personnel they came in contact with. No proof, but an interesting hypothesis.

Anthony Grey, a Reuters correspondent.

His incarceration, in solitary confinement, in Peking. [Beijing today, Beijing to the Chinese since time immemorial, but Peking to Anthony Grey when he had no one but himself for company, and Peking to me when I read his story. It's a fantastic book, Crosswords From Peking. Grey was one of those guys who thought that Times crossword solvers were seriously nuts, and that you had to have their particular brand of nuttiness deep inside you before you could become one of their kind. And then he had his Road-to-Damascus moment in a Chinese cell. There wasn't much he was allowed to do. One of his rare treats was to receive a copy of the Times, suitably shredded of any useful political content. Among the unshredded bits was the crossword. Driven to desperation, he studied the crossword and learnt how crosswords worked the best possible way: by looking at the answers the next day, and then re-reading the clues, armed with the knowledge of the answers. The book describes his journey as he learnt about the puzzles, the clues, the conventions (mostly unwritten), the whole shooting match. An amazing book, one that should have been reprinted a number of times by now --- but strangely hasn't. Odd.

These two stories are good proxies to introduce the two questions that I've been thinking about for some time; by writing this post I hope to catalyse the right kind of debate to learn more, from you, about how to answer those questions.

The first question is close to my heart, and is perhaps akin to a Turing Test. Could we program computers to solve crossword puzzles? Not just any old crossword puzzles, but Times Championship quality, or John Graham's  Araucarias  or Bob Smithies' Bunthornes (truly fiendish when of the "connected" variety) or those set by erstwhile giants like Edward Mathers (Torquemada), Derek MacNutt (Ximenes) or Jonathan Crowther (Azed). Yes I know that computers now can beat all comers at chess, that they can even beat the best at Jeopardy, and that crosswords should therefore be a walk in the park, even if the park in question is more like Bletchley. But can they? Will they?

The second question is even closer to my heart, to do with the generations to come. Are we approaching a time when everyone will be able to code? I am one of those Utopians who believes that ubiquitous connectivity and access to compute resources, enabling similarly ubiquitous access to education, can help solve many of the world's problems. I can see ways that the attack of the Digital Divide can be headed off at the pass, as Moore's Law drives the cost of connectivity and compute resources down relentlessly. But what about code? Could the ability to code become a barrier to entry, thereby creating a pernicious form of DigDiv? Can such a thing be prevented? If so, how?

Those are the questions I seek to learn more about, and I'm using the crossword as a catalyst in the process.

When I was young we used to take two copies of the Calcutta Statesman, which carried a syndicated copy of the Times Crossword. [This had some unexpected consequences: for example, we had friends who got in touch with us when the Times was on strike in the UK, asking us to mail them copies of the crosswords. Now this was a time before email was accessible by the masses, and for that matter before photocopiers reached a similar state of ubiquity. So it meant for a while we bought a third copy, cut out the crossword and sent the puzzles over in weekly batches.]

One of those two “normal” copies was for my father. The other was shared by a number of us on a first-come-first-served basis; this may have influenced my early-to-rise habit, since I did my level best to garner that copy outright for me. I learnt how to solve them the Anthony Grey way: try doing the crossword on “publishing day”, look at the answers the next day, and by doing that regularly, to figure out the tools, techniques, data, knowledge, wisdom missing. [Talking about missing wisdom, I was reliably informed (a good euphemism for “my father told me”) that the First Secretary to the Government of Bengal would not see visitors until he’d finished the day’s puzzle, an ex officio tradition. Worked fine for a while, caused a few minor problems by the early 1960s at which point it was discontinued. Shame).

As Grey discovered, there is method to the madness of crossword compilers. They write in code, but the code can be deciphered and then used. Each clue has at least one word or phrase that defines the answer. That word or phrase must be at the start or the end of the clue. The rest of the clue is a set of instructions which, when followed correctly, yield a word or phrase as answer which relates to the “definition” part of the clue. So every clue can be cross-checked when completed.

There are other conventions. The size of the answer is given at the end of the clue. Keywords signal the type of clue: words to do with mixture, confusion, panic all point to anagrams; words such as insert or surround are “operators” with strings of letters defined elsewhere in the clue as operands. There are a finite number of clue types. “Cryptic” is the commonest, where you follow a set of instructions to come up with an answer that matches the definition. “Anagram” is a special case of cryptic. “Double meaning” and “triple meaning” clues don’t have cryptic components, they’re just a series of definitions that read well together. “Hidden” is where the answer is actually to be found literally in the words of the clue. People come up with many definitions of clue types, but I tend to stay with this simple set.

When I sit down to solve a puzzle, what I do is read the clues from start to finish very quickly, trying to figure out where the definition part of the clue is likely to be, then looking for the cryptic components, the instructions, the operator and operand. While doing that I’m looking for the keywords that signal what type of clue it is. And where possible I write in the answer as I read the clue. That’s for the first pass. Then, on further passes, I see what letters have emerged in the grid, and that helps me “see” the clue in a more informed light. I continue the passes until I complete the crossword.

As an example I give below the clues, answers and explanations for the puzzle from a couple of days ago.

 

 Across clues

1  Two friends holding bachelor party, finally, in touching way (8). PALPABLY. Cryptic. Two friends (PAL + PAL), holding bachelor (B, an abbreviation for bachelor) party, finally (Y, the final letter in party) = PAL-PA(B)L-Y = PALPABLY = in touching way

6  Like worn-out clothing, made fun of (6) RAGGED. Double meaning. RAGGED = ‘like worn-out clothing’ as well as ‘made fun of’, even though the word is pronounced differently for the two meanings.

9  Create revolutionary movement in prison (4) STIR. Double meaning. To STIR is to create revolutionary movement; and STIR is a word for prison.

10 Racists smashed phoneboxes (10) XENOPHOBES. Anagram. The answer, which means racists, is an anagram of PHONEBOXES. The word “smashed” acts as a signal, an instruction to find an anagram.

11 Wizard’s wand found in town near London (7,3) POTTERS BAR. Cryptic. Wizard Harry (POTTER’S) wand (BAR) = town near London.

13 European painter unknown in Indian state (4) GOYA. Cryptic. Insert unknown (Y) into Indian state (GOA) to get European painter = (GOYA).

14 Chap who’s mean about Pierre, say, as inappropriate name (8) MISNOMER. Cryptic. Chap who’s mean (MISER) goes “about” NOM, which is French for name (eg Pierre) to get MIS-NOM-ER = inappropriate name.

16 Fashionable small thing put on infant (6) SNAPPY. Cryptic. Small (abbreviated to S) precedes NAPPY (something put on infant) to get SNAPPY = fashionable.

18 Finishes off precise wording where sides meet (6) VERTEX. Cryptic. Precise = VERY; wording = TEXT; take the “finishes”, the last letters, off and you get VER+TEX = VERTEX, where sides meet.

20 Business effort East of major river (8) INDUSTRY. Cryptic. INDUS, a major river, is “east” of TRY, effort, to get INDUSTRY = business.

22 Return of CO, for example? It’s a long story (4) SAGA. Cryptic. CO, carbon monoxide, is an example of a gas. And the “return” of A GAS gets you SAGA = a long story.

24 Polish king going after revolutionary competitor in long run (10) MARATHONER. Cryptic. HONE (Polish) + R (abbreviation for rex, king) goes after MARAT (revolutionary) = MARAT+HONE+R = MARATHONER = competitor in long run.

26 Person skilled at soccer barely perturbed, absorbing total pressure (4-6). BALL-PLAYER. Cryptic. ALL (total) + P (abbreviation for pressure) is “absorbed” by B-LAYER (which is BARELY anagrammatized or “perturbed) to get B-ALL-P-LAYER = person skilled at soccer.

28 For Romans, a day that is short (4) IDES. Cryptic. ID EST (that is), shortened by the loss of the last letter, gives you IDES =for Romans, a day.

29 Robust investigation trapping ring-leader (6) STURDY. Cryptic. STUDY (investigation) “traps” R (the leader of “ring”) to give you STU-R-DY = STURDY = robust.

30 Conductor and female had to practise in private (8) WOODSHED. Cryptic. WOOD (Conductor, as in Sir Henry Wood) and SHE’D (“female had) combine to give WOODSHED = in private (as in “behind the woodshed).

 

Down clues

2  Is found in Thoreau originally? Okay (9) AUTHORISE. Cryptic. IS “found” in an original interpretation (or anagram) of THOREAU gives you AUTHOR-IS-E, to okay.

3  Up train crashed — one not expected to go off the rails (7) PURITAN. Anagram. “Crashed” is the signal to anagrammatize UP TRAIN to give PURITAN, one not expected to go off the rails.

4  Cross carried by historical enemy fighter (5) BOXER. Cryptic. Cross (X) “carried” by BOER (historical enemy) gives you BO-X-ER, a fighter.

5  Geisha’s ready for desire (3) YEN. Double meaning. Yen is the “ready” used by geishas, and also means “desire”.

6  Theatre and hospital demolished, in other words (9) REPHRASED. Cryptic. REP (theatre, as in repertory) + H (abbreviation for hospital) + RASED (a spelling of razed or “demolished”) = REPHRASED, in other words.

7  Girl from part of US or USSR (7) GEORGIA. Triple meaning. Georgia is a girl’s name, a state in the US, and also a republic in what was USSR.

8  Some unfriendly men evidently upset (5) ENEMY. Hidden. The word “enemy” is hidden (signalled by “some”) in reverse (signalled by “upset”) within “unfriendlY MEN Evidently”, to give “some unfriendly men”

12 Writer dramatically going over river dam (7) BARRIER. Cryptic. BARRIE (a dramatic writer) + R (river) gives BARRIER, a dam.

15 Associate supporting gunman as much as possible (9) MAXIMALLY. Cryptic. ALLY (associate) “supports” MAXIM (a gun and a man) giving MAXIMALLY, as much as possible.

17 Continue, as such, always intervening before the end (9) PERSEVERE. Cryptic. PER SE (as such) with EVER (always) “intervening before the end” PER S-EVER-E, continue.

19 Person who’s behind advertisement (7) TRAILER. Double meaning. A trailer is a “person who’s behind”; it’s also an advertisement.

21 Accounts provided by singular group of right-minded people (7) STORIES. Cryptic. S (abbreviation for singular) + TORIES (“right-minded people”) gives STORIES, accounts.

23 At sea, stop son boarding a vessel (5) AVAST. Cryptic. S (son) “boarding” A VAT (a vessel) gives A VA-S-T or AVAST, which is stop, at sea.

25 Temperature, approximately, in part of body (5) TORSO. Cryptic. T (temperature) + OR SO (approximately) gives TORSO, part of body.

27 Temporarily get off course in route heading North (3) YAW. Cryptic. WAY (route) reversed or “heading north” gives YAW, to get off course temporarily.

 

On to my questions. If Anthony Grey — who was completely uninterested in crossword puzzles, didn’t think he could do them, felt that the people who did them were abnormal — could do the crossword puzzle, then one could assert that anyone can. He learnt, in a Sugata Mitra Minimally Invasive Education way. Which makes me think that every child, given the right environment, tools and guidance, can learn to code. Big jump from crosswords to code? Perhaps. But I believe. I believe.

Can a computer be taught to understand puns of all sorts, shapes and styles, as evinced in the examples above? Can it “learn” to use ID EST or PER SE from Latin, NOM from French, Harry Potter from this century, JM Barrie and Henry Wood from the previous one, the Boers from before that, Marat and Goya from even before that? Can it drop letters at will, add them at will, top and tail them as “instructed”, when the instructions are warped and woozy, built to deceive? Perhaps. But I don’t think we’re here yet.

So that’s my quandary. I think we already live in a time when every child can be taught to code, to understand code, to appreciate code. And at the same time I think we’re not yet at a point when computers can do everything. I don’t think they can solve the best of today’s cryptic crosswords, designed as they are to confuse, titillate and deceive, drawing on multiple languages, cultures, contexts and history.

What do you think?

Posted in Four pillars .


More on journeys and destinations

IMG_7065

 

That used to be an iPhone. And if I’d been alert and I’d followed my father’s advice, it would still be an iPhone. One of his favourite sayings was “Nothing mechanical needs forcing”. Over the years I’ve sort-of expanded it to read “nothing mechanical that has been designed properly should need the use of force to make it work”. He first shared this advice with me when I was about 7, half a century ago. So how could it have saved my iPhone 5?

Simple. I went with my family on a short break to Dubai just before Christmas. We were expecting a houseful of guests to descend on us, and the idea of a brief injection of warmth appealed. I booked the flights and hotels, had everything prepared except for one minor issue. My visa hadn’t come through. This, despite the fact that I’d already been to Dubai a few times that year, obtaining visas each time without even the merest shadow of delay. I’d called a few friends to see if they could find out what the blockage was, but nada. Nothing. The application was stuck somewhere in the system. And nobody could tell me why.

Anyway, I told my wife and children that all would be resolved when we actually got to Dubai, that they were all on UK passports anyway, that it only affected me, and that I was confident I could sort it out upon landing. Which is what actually happened: 45 minutes after disembarking, I had the visa in my hand and we were heading for the hotel.

We had good news as we boarded: we’d been upgraded. It was a daytime flight; I’d had a hectic few months and I was exhausted, both physically as well as mentally. I fell asleep as we took off, woke an hour or so later, slightly disorientated. Realised we were airborne, and set about adjusting my seat into the stretched-out position. And it wouldn’t stretch out: I could hear the motor of the mechanism, but the seat stayed where it was and at its original angle. I persevered, and after a while it juddered into the extended position. I resumed my nap.

Nothing mechanical needs forcing.

I was too tired and too distracted to remember that.

I woke an hour or so later, and after a few minutes patted my pocket for my phone, to see what the time was. No phone. Hmmm. Perhaps I’d put it away before the flight took off? I was sure I hadn’t, but I checked nevertheless.

You’ve worked it out by now. Nothing mechanical needs forcing. There was a good reason why the seat mechanism wasn’t working properly. A very good reason.

My iPhone. Which was duly found, underneath the seat, in the condition shown at the start of this post.

Seat mechanisms, especially those designed in the reign of Methuselah (and the aircraft was at least that old), aren’t particularly good at dealing with iPhones. Especially when they come in the way of what needs to be done. This one had huffed and puffed (as I persevered with trying to force it) until the mangling of the phone was complete.

Nothing mechanical needs forcing. I should have remembered. I would have remembered but I was tired and distracted. And didn’t respond to the signals. My bad.

Every time I pick up something that’s mechanical, I tend to remember what my father said. I spend time trying to understand how and why something works, so that I don’t do what I did while on the plane. Using force with mechanical tools is a bit like speaking loudly and slowly in English to someone who doesn’t understand a word of what you’re saying: it achieves no purpose at all, gives you a misguided belief that progress is being made, and potentially risks something breaking down as a result.

I enjoy food, everything about food. Eating it; cooking it; discovering the new; luxuriating in the old. You probably know that already, especially if you’ve seen this TED Talk.

Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot about food. Most of the time, it’s been by watching people. My mother. My father. The family cook. Chefs at the restaurant. It’s amazing what you learn by observation. If you can combine the ability to observe with the ability to listen, you can learn even more. Most of the cooking at home has been done by my wife, day in, day out. I’ve tended to help out with special meals, occasional weekends and when on vacation. But the brunt of the load has been hers. Which means she has a lot of experience. We’ve been married thirty years this year, and over the years she’s helped me become a decent cook. Simple things to begin with. Work with a recipe; shop to the recipe. Check that you have the vessels in the sizes needed; occasionally this may also need to be shopped for. Sketch out the elapsed time, get your ingredients accessible, make sure the work surfaces are clear. Work backwards from when you want to serve. Taste taste taste. And taste again.

All this wasn’t drilled into me in structured lessons or, heaven forfend, PowerPoint. [More on that later, perhaps in a separate post]. The lessons came to me in conversations that took place in the kitchen as I’d be preparing the meal, as she pottered about doing something else. Gently guiding me somewhere without seeming to interfere. Independent of the meal itself, or the dishes, or the guests, or the time or place. They were “journey” things, not “destination” things; flow things, not stocks things.

Of course there were tips and tricks to bring into play, and my wife would help me with them as well. You’d better cover those with water, or they’ll go grey. That dish needs stirring gently, at the bottom, so that it doesn’t catch. You’ll find it easier to cut if you held it like this.

I was lucky. My wife enjoyed cooking, and was willing to share her expertise with me.

The internet, the Web, YouTube, the connected world we live in, all this means that more of us can be lucky. Learn from observing others at a distance, in our own time, at our own pace. Recipes are now easy to find, discovery is simple. Selection is also made easier, given the filters and ratings and reviews available on most decent cooking sites. The how-to bits have also become easier to find, you’ll be amazed by what you find when you look. It’s what Clay Shirky called Cognitive Surplus meeting Lewis Hyde’s Gift. People, all over the world, able and willing to share their expertise with you and me, free gratis and for nothing. Some have patronage models where you can show your appreciation or support, some have products and services you buy because of the relationship and the trust engendered by their willingness to share their expertise, yet others do it for the same reason that Hillary climbed Everest. Because it’s there.

I’ve been privileged to be able to observe chefs “in the flesh”: Richard Corrigan is a personal friend, as is Vineet Bhatia; they’ve both shared some wonderful insights with me over the years, from the simple “how to avoid the sea bass flesh tearing away from the skin as you try and make the skin golden-brown and crispy” to “how to get the tandoori chicken to stay moist yet fully cooked”. Their staff have been as helpful, particularly Chris over at Corrigan’s, who’s even come home to cook for me. [Sent, of course, by Richard]. But most of the time, what they’ve all been able to teach me is the principle, the method, rather than just the simple instantiation of the method. Once I learn that, I can mutate it, fit it into different circumstances, make it “grow” …. and share it.

A lot of what I learned was learned in person, because someone else was willing to share time and experience with me. Rather than feed me, they taught me how to cook. Thank you every one of you, particularly my parents, my wife, Richard Corrigan and Vineet Bhatia. I had to make myself available; I had to observe; I had to listen; and I had to be willing to apply what I’d learnt in front of them, so they could continue to guide.

Some of that is harder to achieve when separated by time and distance, but it’s getting easier every day. That’s why I love what I see of Khan Academy. That’s why I love what Sugata Mitra has been doing. That’s why I’m fascinated by what Howard Rheingold has been doing. That’s why I am convinced about the promise of MOOCs. [I'm not at all worried about reports to do with drop-out rates and completion levels and standards. But that's for a different post, some other day]. I’ve learnt so many tips and tricks from the Web I’ve lost count, from the simple Here’s How You Peel Garlic and Here’s How You Separate Egg White From Yolk to Here’s How To Make Pancakes For Duck Restaurant-Thin. In my own time, at my own pace.

Cooking is a platform. Learning is a platform. Travelling is a platform. Healthcare is a platform.

In each case, you have the opportunity to look at the specific instantiation, the “reference application”, and to stop there.

Or you can look at the platform, the principles that underly the instance.

You can look at the destination. Or you can look at the journey. The stocks. Or the flows.

Sustainable learning is about the flows, not the stocks. Where learning itself becomes both a destination as well as a journey.

They say the Hoover Dam was responsible for the “invention” of cement. The dam is an instance. Cement is the enduring principle.

More to follow. I’m going to look at education and at healthcare in this context before homing in on the workplace in general. Keep your comments coming.

 

Posted in Four pillars .


Of journeys and destinations

 

 

Travelling by train in India used to be a wondrous experience. That is not to say it no longer is one: I have no current information on which to base my opinion one way or another. I lived in Calcutta between 1957 and 1980. During that time, I must have spent a dozen summers or so in Tambaram, on the Madras Christian College campus where my grandfather was professor of Chemistry. My mother would take us every summer for a month or so, and my father sometimes joined us towards the end of the break.

It’s a journey I remember well, particularly since I must have done it maybe thirty times over the time I lived in India. In those days, it used to take us three nights and two days for the fast version, the Mail, and five days/four nights for the slower version. The Coromandel Express hadn’t been conceived as yet, let alone commissioned into service. [Incidentally, the photo above is of a commuter service near Patna at a later date. I rarely travelled on commuter trains, and never on that route]. We travelled to other places in India as well, principally by train.

I can recall going to Bombay in 1962, and being fascinated by a wandering flautist playing Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujh Par. [That may well be the earliest memory I have of anything]. We went back in 1972 for sure; I can remember buying my first single with my own money (Ten Years After, Love Like A Man) and watching Love Story on the big screen, man-tears throughout the last twenty minutes. I can remember going to Bhopal in 1964, which involved changing trains at Nagpur after spending the night in waiting rooms. It was the first and only time I had a Christmas stocking. I can still remember the lights as we approached Bhopal at night, and falling into a pond in Delhi in 1965;  funfairs on the Parade Ground, ivory penknives and monkeys in hotels in Bangalore in 1966; and watching my father drive off the mountain in Darjeeling in 1969 (he was shaken, not stirred: the car jammed into railway lines twenty feet below the road). There were smatterings of Dindigul and Asansol and Durgapur and Salem, a few Kodaikanals, but the staple fare was Calcutta-Madras.

Every May, as we approached the time we would leave for Madras, to stay on campus with my grandfather, I started getting excited. So much to look forward to:

  • Having a staring contest with the cobras and the toads in the outside toilet. [I kid you not. They looked for the shade behind the door, and, like any other seven- or eight-year-old, I was originally torn between the fear of the creatures and the shame of being too scared to pull the door shut. The only licence I have used here is to call it an outside toilet. It was a toilet that was integral to the house but approached only via an external door, a few yards from the front door].
  • Climbing up the guava tree to the right of the front door… they were great to climb but extremely hard in terms of the bark and wood, taking the skin off you if you made the slightest slip.
  • Stealing quietly into the room near the upstairs terrace, where my uncle kept his incredibly delicate balsa wood model planes.
  • Stealing even more quietly into my grandfather’s Locked Room, where he kept the souvenirs of his trips abroad. Ball point pens. Postcards. Books of matches (even though he detested smoking). Tiny bars of soap (of the hotel kind…The entire room smelt gently and fragrantly of soap). Notepaper. Polaroid cameras. Dymo Labelmakers. A garden of delight. What self-respecting child would ever allow a locked door to keep him at bay?
  • Learning to throw scalpels at the tree that dominated the turning circle in front of the house. Real medical scalpels. Real sharp. I must have left little bits of finger there every summer.
  • Going into the chemistry labs with my grandfather, a rare treat. His boring lectures about the periodic table were anything but in hindsight.
  • Dwelling on untrodden ways in the jungle that surrounded the house, having learnt basic snake etiquette.
  • Pretending to be ill, being careful to make up symptoms that would pass muster, in order to be taken into the Holy of Holies: a session involving the opening of a beautiful rectangular wooden box filled with hundreds and hundreds of small white balls all of which tasted the same, yet had very different names. There was a good chance that I could be given a tiny tiny dose of arsenic or belladonna….My grandfather practised homoeopathy.
  • Actually leaving the campus to have a Gold Spot with ice. We were not encouraged to have fizzy drinks.

 

As you can see there were many things I looked forward to doing, every time I went to Madras. But none of them formed the highlight of my journey.

That was reserved for one thing, and one thing only.

The journey itself.

Getting on that train was magical. Three days and two nights of magical. Going to the station: that was a delight in itself. Because each part of the journey had its own peculiar smells. Parking the car in Howrah Station (I think it used to be between platforms 8 and 9) and getting out, that’s when the journey began. Getting used to the “station” smell, slightly damp and dark yet familiar and comforting. Coolies who’d been lazing, smoking beedies and sitting on their haunches, sprang into action like cheetahs. The family used to travel with two suitcases and two holdalls, I can still see them now. The holdall was this strange beast, resembling a suit-bag with pillow-sized pockets at each end, designed to be rolled up and strapped tight. It would hold oodles and oodles of stuff. Never seen one since.

People would come to see us off, my father occasionally amongst them. And they would buy platform tickets for the privilege. Every trip. All the time. Going to the station was a day out.

Finding our coach and compartment was the next bit. And encountering the next set of unique smells, that of “train”. I’d have to wait a bit before I could excuse myself and inspect the toilet, which smelt of “toilet”. Looking down into the commode and seeing the train tracks below. Flushing, just to see what happened. Looking longingly at the alarm cord and knowing it was not to be.

Whistles and hoots and people scurrying off as the train began its slow departure and gathered speed. Which introduced the next smell. “Coal”. Sitting by the window, trying to look out, pressing into the red protective slightly concave bars. Occasionally getting stung by a live ember. Soot-faced within the first fifteen minutes, happily so.

Looking at bradshaws to work out where the train was going to stop next, which stops it was going to whistle through. Waiting for the vestibule attendant to come and take orders for food. Railway food. Including the mamlette. Incidentally, a close friend made me aware of this: Railways to bring back its forgotten flavours. Looks like I shall be a nostalgic tourist on Indian Railways sometime soon.

As the journey proceeded, there was so much to occupy myself. Looking at the other passengers without being seen to stare, wondering what their stories were. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera.

Trying to position myself strategically in the toilet whenever we were about to cross a major river bridge (like the Godavari), so that I could look down a very long way.

And eating. Eating at every stop, as people pushed food at you, delivered to your window, fresh and insanely-good-smelling. Yes, another smell.

At the longer stops (faithfully signalled by the bradshaw), getting out to the bookshop. For the first two-thirds of the journey I think they used to be Newmans, and then as we went further south they all turned into Higginbothams. Who knew what treasures we would find. Heaven was finding an unread Archie or Dennis in the early years, and Mad Magazine in later ones.

Sitting by the window, figuring out the system used to number the telegraph poles, and then trying to predict when the system would change over into a new one. Or when the sequence would break, driven by the terrain. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Looking without seeing, gazing into faraway fields while daydreaming at scale. Occasionally observing something bizarre, something comic, something remarkable. [For example, every now and then I'd notice a few women sitting together, on their haunches, in the space bordering two fields. And as we came closer they'd flip their saris over their heads. It took me a while to realise what they were doing. And why modesty demanded they cover their faces. Even though they were far far away.]

Journeys.

As a child I was very privileged to enjoy and savour the journey for itself and not just the getting somewhere that happened as a result of the journey.

We’d go drop our father off at the club or the golf course, and sing during the journey. Savour every bump in the road, particularly the “dink”, a very large dip near the entrance to the golf club.

We’d volunteer to meet anyone coming in by rail, and go to the station to meet them. Even if it meant there was no space for them in the car, and a second car or taxi had to be arranged.

We rarely flew in those days. And people rarely flew to see us. So trips to the airport were rare. But we would go to the airport. As an outing. Even if no one was coming or going. Just so that we went on a trip.

Yes, we enjoyed journeys. Traffic jams never bothered us. Time was of no consequence. Journeys were there to be savoured. And savour them we did.

This journey-versus-destination construct was part and parcel of our schooling as well. Destinations, especially repeat destinations, were boring. Journeys fascinated us. There was something different about each journey, even if it led to the same place. If someone solved a maths question, the answer was irrelevant. It was all about the journey to the answer. How did you do that? Show me!

As we proceed towards becoming true learning organisations, we’re all going to have to learn how to focus on the journey and not just the destination. Peter Senge signalled intent a couple of decades ago, but the world of work has changed dramatically since then. Collaborative tools are considerably better now that we’re all connected and using cloud-based services; our ability to share, to aggregate our learning using collective intelligence tools, to apply that learning iteratively, all these have improved in leaps and bounds. The need for collaboration has never been greater, as we face new problems; some have to do with speed; some with complexity; some with hyperconnectivity.

People like Howard Rheingold and Tom Malone and John Hagel and John Seely Brown have been working on this for decades, the shift to a networked iterative collaborative organisation, borderless in comparison with the past, adaptive and learning and contextually aware, built around flows rather than stocks, able to operate with collective intelligence, connected with customers, partners, supply and distribution chains.

So expect a few more posts as I dig into the theme of journeys rather than destinations. Journeys are flows. Destinations are stocks.

Posted in Four pillars .


Thrill me to the marrow

People have often asked me if I have a “favourite” album, despite knowing that I am deeply inured in the music of the Sixties and early Seventies. I do. More than one. It all depends on the mood I’m in. The Doors’ LA Woman is definitely up there. As is the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, along with Revolver. The Grateful Dead show up at least twice, with American Beauty and Blues for Allah. John Mayall’s The Turning Point raises the stakes in a different direction, as does Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman fights its corner, and In The Wind from Peter, Paul and Mary is an unlikely contender. The Doobie Brothers won’t be denied with What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. Dylan shows up a few times with Desire and Freewheelin’ and Blonde On Blonde; Simon and Garfunkel with Bridge Over Troubled Water and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme put in a strong showing. Jim Croce is unforgettable with You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, as is Carole King with Tapestry, James Taylor with Mud Slide Slim and Joni Mitchell with Blue.

 

The Band’s eponymous album has to be there, as does Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Jethro Tull hop their way in, one-legged, with Aqualung if not Thick as A Brick as well. Led Zeppelin won’t be denied with 3. Cream’s Disraeli Gears has to be counted. Leonard Cohen walks in whenever he feels like with Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate. Steely Dan can be chosen multiple times, though I’d probably go for Can’t Buy a Thrill over Aja, just. America’s first is amazing. Stevie Wonder can be counted for many albums but he must be in there with Innervisions. The Allman Brothers have multiple possibilities as well, Brothers and Sisters edging it for me. Van Morrison has to be somewhere in the mix, Moondance probably swings it. Janis Joplin has to be in the mix with Pearl. Hendrix can’t be left out, with Electric Ladyland. ELP and Yes are hard to fit in despite having strong contenders. Supergroup albums like Blind Faith’s eponymous first and Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills with Super Session are impossible to ignore. Live compilations are difficult to deal with, especially when you come across superb examples like Woodstock or The Last Waltz. Outliers like Fotheringay, Fog On The Tyne, and the superbly unusual collection of people on On the Road To Freedom.

But if I really had to try, the battle would be between Neil Young’s Harvest, the Who’s Who’s Next and Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s Four Way Street. And I’ve probably left fifty other great albums out. A hard, hard call. [And I would have given it to Four Way Street except for one thing I've never been able to understand. More of that later].

I wish people would ask me instead if I had a favourite song. That one I can answer, straightaway, unambiguously, with full conviction.

Yes, I have a favourite song.

It’s getting to the point
Where I’m no fun anymore
I am sorry
Sometimes it hurts so badly
I must cry out loud
I am lonely
I am yours, you are mine
You are what you are
And you make it hard.

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Stephen Stills) performed by Crosby, Stills and Nash

It’s not just any song.  I’ve been in love with it ever since I first heard it, for a variety of reasons. The words. The music. The melody. The changes in tempo. What the song is about. The harmony. The harmony. And the harmony. You get my drift.

I’ve had the privilege of hearing it “live” a handful of times now, and hope to extend that sequence as long as possible. It’s an incredible song. Sometime yesterday, I was reminded of it when Judy Collins shared the photograph below, a contemporary one of her with Stephen Stills. He wrote the song about her and about the end of his relationship with her, “Judy Blue Eyes”. You can see why she gets called that.

 

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That got me poring into the web, looking for an early shot of the two of them together. The best I could find was this one, but it doesn’t do her eyes justice:

 

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Maybe this one gives you a better sense of why:

 

 

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It’s a truly amazing song. Three separate songs rolled into one, carrying on where the Beatles’ A Day In The Life left off. It was the first-ever song recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash; they started their set at Woodstock with it. Fifteen years later they were still going strong with it at Live Aid. Sound On Sound has a beautiful article about how the song was recorded, seen through the eyes of the incredibly talented Bill Halverson. Ultimate Classic Rock has it as No 30, with a decent write-up. Rolling Stone covers it in their Song Stories. Time Magazine could not leave it out of their All-Time 100 songs either. Over the years, I’ve read so many reviews of the song, by other songwriters, by other musicians, by sound engineers, by poets and lyricists, it’s always up there.

Which reminds me. The song is conspicuous in its absence on Four Way Street: the snatch at the end alone just doesn’t do it justice. Which is one of the reasons why I couldn’t put that album down as my Number One.

I have no such problem when it comes to choosing a song.

My thanks to Stephen Stills for writing it, and to all who’ve been involved in giving him the reason to write it, play it, share it with us.

It continues to Thrill Me to The Marrow.

 

Posted in Four pillars .