Another unGoogleable question

Note: I have posted unGoogleable questions before. Hence the “Another”.

I’ve posted links to seven songs below. In a particular sequence. The sequence matters. There is a link between each song and the song that follows it; those links are broken if the sequence is changed. I have not been able to continue the sequence, though it might be possible. Can you continue the sequence, or at least spot what chains one song to the next?

Give it a try. At worst you may discover some music you like that you haven’t heard before.







Tumbleweed connections

I must have been 13, maybe 14. In Calcutta. I’d never lived anywhere else, something that wouldn’t change for a decade or so. I was sitting in a friend’s house, listening to a “new” album by someone whose music I’d only recently discovered. Elton John. The new album was called Tumbleweed Connection. The song I was listening to was Where To Now, St Peter?


Until then, all I’d heard of Elton John was a couple of songs from his second, eponymous, album. I don’t think I’d ever seen an Elton John album until that day. [In India, those days, the way you listened to modern music was on the radio. Then, slowly, cassette tapes of new albums would permeate their way in to the country, albums left strewn around as visiting hippies traded their possessions in order to find themselves. Occasionally a diplomat or a multinational executive would head back home, and those in the know would rush for the bargains as they sold the possessions they no longer wanted. Some time later, the Gramophone Company of India would step in and release the album locally.

So I hadn’t seen an Elton John album until I saw the Katyals’ copy of Tumbleweed.

I’d never seen a tumbleweed either. And it wasn’t as if there was an internet for me to go to in order to find out. I could (and did) look up the dictionary. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, to be precise. And I was told “A type of plant that snaps off above the root, curls into a ball, and rolls about in the wind”. That’s what it said. Intriguing, but I still had no idea what a tumbleweed was. Maybe it was something the hippies wanted. Give me some tumbleweed. Hold the tumble.

Then, not long later, I found myself with a copy of James Taylor’s fabulous Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Suitably bashed and scratched, having made its way round Sudder St and Kyd St and Free School St, meaningful for those who remember the Calcutta of the time. We did something strange those days. We used to listen to whole albums. And so I heard Highway Song.


“… the one eyed seed of a tumbleweed in the belly of a rolling stone”. Now that really helped me understand what a tumbleweed was, didn’t it?

I was deep into discovering Laurel Canyon at the time, though I didn’t know it at the time. When you’re listening to a C90 BASF cassette with usually nothing more than a scribble of the album and artist name on the side, there isn’t a lot to go on. Track listings were a luxury; sometimes you had the actual album in your hands, but that didn’t mean you saw any liner notes. Far Eastern imports did away with all that stuff, you had paper-thin covers encased in even thinner polythene with blurred images of what passed for the album cover.

Where was I? Oh yes Laurel Canyon. The Mamas and the Papas. The Doors. Carole King. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, in their various permutations and combinations, solo, duo, trio and quarter. And of course Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell. I’d already heard Blue and I was hooked. Someone had a real copy of For The Roses and I managed to borrow it for a week. And I was in heaven.

There I was, quietly listening to the album. Wait a minute!  … but I know my needs/my sweet tumbleweed…. Here we go again. What was it with these people? First Elton John, then James Taylor, then Joni Mitchell. These tumbleweeds were beginning to follow me. [I didn’t know at the time that Joni had been dating James at some point then. Otherwise I may have thought that tumbleweed was something you could catch].

Things quietened down for a while after that, tumbleweed-wise. I had to wait till Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first “posthumous” album, Skynyrd’s First… And Last. I think it would have been their fifth. I didn’t even know that album existed until I came to the UK in 1980. But I found myself listening to it, and there it was again.

Like a restless leaf in the autumn breeze,
Once, I was a tumbleweed.
Like a rolling stone, cold and all alone,
Livin’ for the day my dream would come.


In classic truth-stranger-than-fiction style, the next time I would come across the word was when I was listening to someone who Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t think too much of, to put it mildly. Neil Young, with Don’t Cry.

Actually that’s not true. It was the next time I came across the word in lyrics of a song.

But something happened in between.

In 1984, I went to see a fabulous film by a guy called Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas. Brilliant. With Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, et al. Music by Ry Cooder. Unmissable. Check the trailer out.


Guess what. I saw my first tumbleweed. Now I finally knew what one looked like. More than a decade after coming across the world, having moved countries, continents.


That’s not a still from the film. It’s taken from a blog called Blue Mesa, more specifically from a post on …. tumbleweed racing.

Fast forward to this weekend. Since watching Paris, Texas, I’d visited the US for the first time, been to Texas for the first time, and even seen a tumbleweed IRL.

I was done with tumbleweeds. I’d heard about them, heard them in songs, read about them, seen them in movies and then seen one. I was done.

Until this weekend. Until I read this article, regurgitated somewhere in my feed, about the Mine Kafon.

Mine Kafon. Go visit the site, folks, and see what you can do to help.



“Tumbleweed” designed to spot landmines. What a brilliant idea.

Tumbleweed. Connections.

Thinking lazily about notifications and alerts: Part 3

[Note to readers: For those coming into this cold, I wrote Part 1 and Part 2 early in January; this one, Part 3, will be followed by a handful more in weeks to come].

I think of sensors this way: every piece of equipment capable of sensing something and sending me information about that something is in effect extending my own set of senses. A security camera outside the house extends my eyesight. If it is capable of night vision, it extends my ability to see. If it is linked to a network and allows me to “see” from afar, it allows me to sense remotely. If it has the capacity to retain what it sees and allows me to query it at a later date, it allows me to “see” into the past, to travel in time as well and in space.


Kevin Kelly (one of my favourite authors)

Sensors extend our natural senses. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is very much in keeping with Kevin Kelly’s assertion that technology speeds up evolution. [I love having a reason to re-read essays in his Technium. Something I would commend you do, it is well worth the while].

It’s not just about enhancing an existing sense or extending the sensing capacity over distance or over time. We are also on the threshold of “sensing” new things, things we could not sense before, things that haven’t existed for long. Nobody thinks twice about our current ability to “sense” (via satnav apps) the nearest ATM, the nearest fuel selling unit, the nearest electric car charging facility.

Yup, our smart devices, and their ecosystems of hardware extensions (sometimes as wearables) and software apps, they’re all part of our rapidly expanding sensory network. Some form of Extra Sensory Perception is now reality.

It doesn’t stop there. It’s now been a few years since I first read about how we’re bringing sensors closer to home, not just by wearing them or hanging them off our smart devices, but by implanting them. Cochlear implants that, while improving our sense of hearing, also throw in, for the heck of it, an ability to sniff out wifi signal and compass direction, just to give a few examples. I guess it will only be a matter of time before people gain “x-ray vision” or an ability to see through walls. Time to dust off that William Gibson mantra again. The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Some of our technology-enabled extra-sensory ability to solve time and distance issues have existed for a while. The security guard in a room somewhere looking at a wall of screens, checking for exceptions. The recording capacity attached to surveillance cameras. All ways to “sense” something and receive that sensing in a different place or at a different time.

Prior to that, the technology used to do the remote sensing was cruder. Mountain and Mahomet time. Since the remote place couldn’t come to you, you went to the remote place physically. Before video cameras, security guards used to do the rounds the old-fashioned way. Expensive, inefficient but reasonably effective. Most of you must have seen films set in the Second World War where prisoners of war escape only when the security guard is at the aphelion of his personal orbit vis-a-vis the would-be escapees.

We’ve seen this movie before. Before telephones we couldn’t speak over any real distance. Telephones conquered the distance problem, but not the time one. If the party you wished to speak to wasn’t there, tough. No tickee no washee. Then came a time when people took messages for you if you weren’t there. And left them by the phone, so you had to get to the phone to see them. Then came answerphones that looked like tape recorders, attached to the phone. The message taking facility had become a little more automated. Then you could query those messages remotely. And the capacity to hold messages increased rapidly. And then the message could call you.

That telephone-message movie is now playing out for pretty much every form of notification or alert there is.


Firehoses of notifications and alerts.

So they need filters before they can be rendered useful.

Notification Class 3, Houston We Have a Problem, is a filtering mechanism. Conditional, with thresholds that can be set in advance and changed at will. Some of you will be used to IFTTT, If This Then That. Houston We Have a Problem needs IFTTT for notifications, nothing more. You don’t want the firehose. You want to know only if some exception condition is met or breached. If the doorbell rings and the only person in the house is my aged aunt who doesn’t hear too well, then make the bell ring more loudly, or make a pre-agreed light fitting flash. You get my drift. Establish the threshold for something that can be sensed remotely, then establish the notification process that is triggered when the threshold is passed.

There is a lot more to be done with the notification process in such contexts, in terms of the devices alerted, the timing of the alerts, the route taken (sound, light, movement, etc), whether the alert is persisted for later inspection, whether time series of the alerts are themselves persisted, whether there is a need for acknowledgement of the notification (and that’s a notification in itself).

Imagine the drudgery of building maintenance and you can see just how efficient it can become. No need to inspect the bulbs, batteries, toilets, rubbish chutes, whatever. Remote sensors will tell you when a threshold condition is breached. Maintenance by exception.

Enough on Class 3 for now. The next class of notification is I Am Here. The best way to think of this one is as the answer to the question “Dude, Where’s My Stuff?”. There’s a lot of motion in life, lots of stuff moving around. And people want to know about the state of that thing in motion. Are you on the train, on your way home yet? Did you get my letter? Where’s the dress I ordered? Where’s Kevin? Where’s Wally? Did you get my cheque? (No, not the one’s that’s “in the post”, along with Billy Bunter’s Postal Order or the homework that the dog ate).

Fundamentally, I Am Here signals the current position of something in motion. The requester of the notification wants to know that Elvis has Left the Building. That the Package Has Arrived. That the Train has Passed Clapham Junction. Whatever.

So many notifications, so little time. Filters needed. We need to be able to subscribe to the notifications sensibly, so there’s a pub-sub approach needed. We need to have some way of signalling conditional routing, not just about the thresholds to be tested against, but also the routes taken by the notification, the timing of the notifications, and the devices to which the notifications will be sent.

That’s enough on I Am Here for now. I will deal with further classes of notification, and start building on the subscription models and threshold conditions in later posts.







Voyages of discovery

Of late, I’ve been spending quite some time thinking about longitudinal studies; a number of you have engaged with me with encouraging feedback after my most recent post on this, on the impact of change and the time it takes to assess that impact. There are many reasons for this, but there’s a principal one. Polarised debate, often on ideological grounds, seems to have become more common in the recent past. It’s something I wrote about a number of times recently:  in Thinking About 2015 two years ago, in Routing Around Obstacles in April last year, in and in Going To The Match at the end of last year.

When debate is just ideology versus ideology, and the facts don’t matter, we live our lives in a house divided against itself.  [Personally, I think that this particular speech of Lincoln’s, while not as well-known as the Gettysburg Address, deserves more airtime].

I think it was James Surowiecki, writing in the New Yorker, who wrote about Brexiteers defending their position on ideological grounds (to do with sovereignty of border and law), largely ignoring economic arguments, and then strangely expecting the rest of Europe to negotiate solely on economic grounds rather than ideological ones. The paraphrase is mine, not his, apologies for any unintended misinterpretation.

Just this morning, I was reading about the drought affecting Haute-Savoie. Some key phrases:

  • Experts said that last month was the driest December in Haute-Savoie for 135 years, with just 0.2mm of rain falling in Annecy.
  • And, last week, a number of resorts recorded their 50th day without natural snowfall.
  • Serge Taboulot, head meteorologist for the northern Alps at Météo France, said: “This is an unprecedented drought. We have data from the 19th century in Annecy, and we have never seen such a situation before.”
  • On some slopes the snow cover was the worst for 20 years, he added.
  • Ninety per cent of French mountains were said to be affected after below-average snowfall since the summer.


Hmmm. Doesn’t look much like a Chinese conspiracy to me. But then even that is not a fair statement to make, I show a bias. Unless we start looking at the data, everything that is debated will be seen as a conspiracy by one ideology or another.

As I wrote yesterday, one way of resolving this tension is to have good data. Now that’s a fine and dandy thing to say going forward, on a “day zero” basis. The day we announce the start of the two-year clock for Brexit qualifies as a day zero. So will the actual exit. The day Trump was elected qualifies as a day zero. So will the day he is inaugurated.

Problems where we can start collecting data sensibly are tractable, even though we should expect considerable lobbying by those who would prefer that society cannot judge them even in hindsight.

What I’m currently intrigued by is the role of the archivist. Sometimes the archivist is an unintended one. For example, I’ve been seeing reports for well over a decade that ships’ logs from the 18th and 19th centuries have reliable and consistent data to help us understand aspects of climate change.

Sometimes the archivist is an intended one, carrying out the duties of an under appreciated profession. I’ve been able to find an application for a replacement passport made by my grandfather in the UK, and until then I didn’t even know he’d been to the UK decades before I was born. I’ve found records for erstwhile relatives making their first passage to India in the 1950s. All this because we are able to get access to historical information: birth and death registers, citizenship records, journey-related information, causes of death, migration patterns, court papers, telephone directories, myriad documents that were considered public records that were carefully archived and later made public.

Sometimes the archivist is accidental-on-purpose, carefully preserving records that were originally protected against public cynosure, then released after some or other oddly-determined cooling-off period.

Sometimes what is archived for one reason is made available for another; I hope to see the open data movement start catalysing such events in the next five years or so, as enlightened holders of valuable data sets make that data available to all and sundry after assessing that the public good is not counteracted by private harm.

And sometimes the archivist is an amateur. People like you and me. Particularly people who are getting on a bit. Our stories, shared while we can still remember and still articulate what we remember. What we remember about how we lived when we were young, what we learnt at our forebears’ knees, what stories they shared with us.

Making sense out of our collective stories used to be intractable. Technological advances suggest that this problem is getting more and more solvable.

It goes beyond our stories, we all have artefacts to share. eBay and Etsy are not the only games in town for where old artefacts go to die. Just like we learnt to collect and recycle our rubbish, we will learn to collect and archive our past. There is a Silent Spring waiting to be written about this. Maybe someone who reads this will go do it.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool collector, and over the years I’ve amassed quite deep collections of a very small number of things in very narrow topics. The East India Company and the Raj. Detective fiction since Poe and Wilkie Collins. Anything and everything to do with Don Quixote. Anything and everything to do with PG Wodehouse. The autographs of 20th century scientists I revere. Analogue versions of modern digital equipment. Cricket bats signed by batsmen I revere, and at least one bat signed by bowlers I revere.

Collecting is in itself not archiving, not unless you know what’s there, you can find it, you know and can attest to its provenance, and you have taken steps to take care of it. Which also means understanding if, when and how to cull the collection.

A good library is like a good garden; weeding is essential.

Let me take a walk into the wild here. And talk about how I discovered music.

We used to have an old gramophone at home. [Not the one with the crank handle and the big horn and the steel needles in a small box: I have a few of those now]. What we had was something very late-fifties/early sixties. A Garrard turntable, with a big central spindle, in the middle of what looked like a very large chest-like cabinet, opening from the top. Two speakers, one on either side, with the speaker cloth showing through the tracery of carved wood that decorated the front of the cabinet. A valve amplifier you couldn’t see in daylight, even though you smelt it warming up; you could, however, see it when it wasn’t daylight. In those days all valves were red at night.

Along with that gramophone were some albums. A whole bunch of “78s”, lacquer records from the 20s to the 50s. Another bunch of “10-inchers”, 33RPM albums that were somehow stunted in their growth. A large bunch of traditional 12″ classical albums. A smaller bunch of LPs with “modern” music. An even smaller handful of 45s. And that was it.

The 78s included some classical, some jazz and some more popular and folksy. I can only remember being entranced by a handful, Hernando’s Hideaway and Tom Dooley come quickly to mind.

The 10-inchers included a wonderful Perry Como (with Don’t Get The Stars Get In Your Eyes), a couple of Glenn Millers, Danny Kaye doing I’m Late, even a saucyish Ruth Wallis singing Down In The Indies amongst other songs.

The classical music 12-inchers covered most of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, with bits and bobs of Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov. There were a decent bunch of jazz albums, quite a few Ella Fitzgerald and a similar number of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton, that kind of thing. And then there were a few oddball LPs as well. Pat Boone with Bernardine, Love Letters in The Sand, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, Don’t Forbid Me, April Love, Chains Of Love, Anastasia, Why Baby Why and so on. Edmondo Ros and Bongos from the South. Burl Ives at Carnegie Hall. My Fair Lady. South Pacific. The Pajama Game.

And a tiny handful of 45s. Summer Wine. Strangers in the Night. These Boots Were Made for Walking.

I can remember a couple of Hindi music albums as well. Sangam was one of them.

That was my day zero for music.

From that time on, I can remember precisely when someone I listened to entered my life. The day an uncle dropped in Peter Paul and Mary’s In the Wind, along with Brubeck’s Time Out. The day I went to the local record shop, Sonorous, and my father bought me A Hard Day’s Night.

From my music listening perspective, that was that for the period 1957-1968. We moved house in 1969, and things changed. The radio became more of an introducer of music. My cousin Jayashree became an arbiter of taste. Her husband, Gyan, sadly no longer with us, became a key influence on what I listened to. More of all this later.

Why am I bothering to share this? Only to make a point.

What you remember has value. Put it down somewhere. Be diligent about it. Particularly when it comes to how you lived, what relationship meant to you. What trust meant to you. What community meant to you. What schooldays were like, what school friends were like. What your childhood illnesses and medications were. What passed for everyday food and what passed for special treats. How you kept yourself occupied. What study was like, what play was like. How you kept yourself amused. Where and how you travelled. Whom you spent time with. What you read, what you watched, what you listened to.

What the weather was like. How much things cost. What skills you learnt and when.

What mattered to you. Why.

What you remember has value.

What we remember has value.

But we have to learn some basic skills in archiving in order to make what we remember useful for generations to come.

This is not meant to be a narcissistic post. If it’s come across like that, I have screwed up. Big time. My intent in sharing this is only to suggest that alongside the professional archivist and the accidental archivist, we all need to become amateur archivists. That is how we are going to build pictures of the past in order to understand the impact of things that were decided a few decades ago, and help understand things that are being decided and things that will be decided.






Musing gently about the impact of change and the time it takes

We’re all very connected now, and news travels fast. There was a time when what constituted “news” used to be corroborated before it was sent on its way. There was a time when news had to be new to be news. There was a time when news had to be true to be news.

Those were the days.

Some of you may remember reading Bombardiers, a book by Po Bronson, which came out over 20 years ago. Here’s a review that might intrigue you enough to read it.

The principal reason for mentioning that book is that Bronson’s satire was instrumental in getting me to understand something I’ve written about before, over 10 years ago.

That something is this, paraphrasing Bronson:

In the Stone Age, Might was Right. And you could figure out who was Mighty quite easily. In the Industrial Age, Money Ruled. And you could figure out Who had the Money quite easily. In the Information Age, figuring out Who has The Information isn’t easy. In fact it is Very Hard. Because the time taken to verify the information can exceed the speed at which information changes.

So it doesn’t matter if the UK doesn’t spend £350m per week on the EU, it doesn’t matter if the NHS never receives that theoretical weekly sum. It doesn’t matter if Mexico never pays for the wall, or even if that wall never gets built.

Things move on. Turning back the clock is hard. Very hard.

There is something that is a little easier. Studying the impact of change, looking objectively at the data. Not easy, but easier.

It means knowing the right data to collect, the right way to collect it. It means preserving that data and making it accessible. It means protecting that data from change and from misuse.

It also means looking at the data over a long enough period. That’s what we didn’t do with cigarettes; but at least that battle’s over. That’s what we didn’t do about sugar; and that battle isn’t over yet. That’s what we’ve been trying to do with climate change, and that battle’s barely begun. That’s what we’re probably at the nascent stages on with fracking: the issue is not about hydraulic fracturing per se, not even about horizontal drilling,  but about safe ways of disposing of the waste water, in particular learning from the seismologists who’ve been studying this aspect.

These battles get won and lost by people who are in positions of authority for far shorter periods than the time it takes for their decisions to have an effect.

And for us to learn about that effect, understand it and respond to it. Adapt as needed.

Things move on. Turning back the clock is hard. Very hard.

We need to get better at studying the impact of change over time. Proper, longitudinal study, collecting and preserving the right data sets, with the relevant discipline and safeguards in place. That’s why I have been fascinated by and supportive of Web Science.

This need for good longitudinal data is also the reason why I have been so taken with Amara’s Law, about our tendency to overestimate the effects of a technology in the short run and to underestimate it in the long run.

Take cricket for example. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth when limited-overs cricket was introduced, more of the same when T20 was introduced. The death of test cricket was foretold and prophesied, and later announced. Apparently it’s been dying ever since.

Not according to the data, especially when you look at longitudinal data. This was something I wrote about recently.

Taken over nearly a century and a half, comprising well over two thousand Tests, the data indicated that since the introduction of the changes, Tests were more prone to ending in win/loss results rather than draws, that more runs were being scored and more quickly, and that perhaps counterintuitively, the number of long individual innings (as exemplified by triple centuries scored) was also on the increase.

Events earlier this week have allowed me to look into another data set, suitably longitudinal, which reinforces all this.

I started with the hypothesis that one reason why Tests may be ending in win-loss results more often is that batsmen have learnt to truly accelerate run-scoring in bursts, using skills acquired in the short game. I surmised that we may be seeing more such bursty behaviour in the 3rd innings, thereby setting up for grandstand finishes, sometimes with “sporting declarations”. I also surmised that this bursty behaviour would be able to act as a potential insurance policy against any time lost due to inclement weather. But it was all hypothesis. I needed the facts. At the very least I needed a suitable data set collected over a sensible time period. The recent Australia-Pakistan Test gave me the catalyst I needed. The Australians scored 241 for 2 in their second innings before declaring.  By itself that wasn’t unusual. But they scored the runs at a rate of 7.53 RPO, something I would associate readily with T20, something I would expect in a small percentage of 50-over games, but something I would consider a complete outlier in the five-day game.

So I went and had a look.

In the history of Test cricket, covering somewhere between 15000 and 18000 innings, there have been just 10 instances where a run rate (RPO) of 6 or more per over has been sustained in an innings lasting 20 or more overs.

  • England 237/6d, RPO 6.12, 3rd innings, Mar 2009
  • Pakistan 128/2, RPO 6.19, 4th innings, Oct 1978
  • West Indies 154/1, RPO 6.20, 4th innings, Mar 1977
  • Australia 251/6d, RPO 6.27, 3rd innings, Jan 2015
  • Australia 264/4d, RPO 6.28, 3rd innings, Nov 2015
  • South Africa 189/3d, RPO 6.37, 3rd innings, Mar 2012
  • Pakistan 164/2, RPO 6.60, 4th innings, Nov 1978
  • South Africa 340/3d, RPO 6.80, 2nd innings, Mar 2005
  • West Indies 173/6, RPO 6.82, 4th innings, Feb 1983
  • Australia 241/2d, RPO 7.53, 3rd innings, Jan 2017

The first limited-overs international was played in 1971. All ten instances took place after that date. The first T20 international was played in 2005. 6 out of the 10 instances took place after that date. In all ten cases, the team putting their foot on the accelerator didn’t lose; in half the cases they won.

 As it is with cricket, so it is with many other things. When you change things, it takes time to figure out the real effects. Longitudinal studies are important. This is as true for technology change as for any other change. With all change, there is an Amara’s Law in operation. We tend to overestimate the short term effects and underestimate the longer term impact. 

Tracking the impact of change requires good baseline data and a consistent way of collecting and preserving the data over long periods. That’s not a trivial task. It is made more complex with the need to protect the data from corruption and misuse.

While I love cricket, I only use it as an example  here, to illustrate how longitudinal studies can help assess the impact of change, objectively and reliably.