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Thinking about curry: and a paean to goats


Photo from Tumblr dedicated to climbing goats

When I moved to the UK in 1980, the curry enthusiast in me quietly died. “Indian” restaurants weren’t Indian. I’m not trying to be pedantic and distinguishing between Indian and Bangladeshi: in fact, as someone who was born in Calcutta and lived there for 23 years, Bangladeshi food would have been more recognisable by me than most other cuisines from India.

“Indian” restaurants weren’t Indian. A large number of them appeared to be run by people from Sylhet, but that wasn’t what made them UnIndian. It was the bill of fare. Meat Madras? What was that? Chicken Vindaloo? Was that even possible? Lamb Kashmir? What were these things?

If someone told you that a restaurant was “European” what would you understand or expect? Smorgasbord accompanied by moussaka, crepes fighting it out with blinis? Paella and provolone? Blood sausage and bufalo? Schnitzel and szczawiowa?

That’s how I felt when I was told I was in an “Indian” restaurant? Indian what? Indian how? Punjabi? Generally North Indian? Gujarati (and primarily vegetarian)? South Indian (and once again usually vegetarian?)? Bengali? Andhra? Anglo-Indian? Goan? What kind of Indian?

When I entered the restaurant, I was none the wiser. The menu might as well have been written in Finno-Ugric. So I starved. More importantly, I was starved of capsaicin. Home-cooked curries provided by well-meaning friends often contained apples and raisins and decades-old curry powder. Pubs began to offer curries as well, which usually meant someone had cooked a chili con carne and added some turmeric very late in the day to currify it. I starved.

It was hard to get used to the fact that most Indian restaurants had already adapted the cuisine to deliver what the local populace wanted; that vindalho and Bangalore and Phal and Rezala had just become shorthand for hot/very hot/very very hot/and so on, directed primarily towards the Dortmunder lager crew.

I starved. When I could afford to go to pricier Indian restaurants in London, and when I could afford to travel further, I found real Indian cuisine. Restaurants clearly signalling what kind of food they served, menus that contained things I recognised. But that took time.

There was a way out. A simple way out. And it was this. Go to one of the Sylheti Indian restaurants, speak in Bengali, ask for “staff curry”. And you were taken into the bosom of the restaurant, served what the workers would eat when they finished work, and it was heaven. A catch. You had to wait till nearly closing time before “staff curry” would be ready. But it was worth the wait.

One of the quirks of staff curry was that it was made up largely of leftover ingredients, so you weren’t sure what you would get. But it would be Bengali and spicy and recognisable and taste like heaven. There were other bonuses. Sometimes I would be asked to make sure I came back there a few days later, when they would have hilsa. What Calcuttan could resist?

Most days the staff curry was excellent. Occasionally it was way better than that. Meat that came on the bone as well as off, in succulent gently-chewy mouthfuls of manna. [Reminded me of Moira St neighbour Allan's incredible pork curry, with the pork "boiled in oil" .... because the doctor said he couldn't have fried food...]. There was something about the meat that took me back years, decades, half a life. So I had to ask. And they said “lamb”. I wouldn’t budge. So they said “mutton”. I was unmoved. They hummed and hawed. And confessed.



Photo courtesy Sampaparispassion

Goat curry. What joy. And how I’d missed having it. I must have been 15 or 16 when I first had it, had it regularly for five or six years, and then missed it for a similar period. Never again.

That love for goat curry instilled a fascination for goats that has stayed with me ever since. Amazing creatures. They can climb anything, get anywhere.






When I first went to Capri I was struck by a number of things. How beautiful it all was, the magnificent views. The price of a cup of coffee. And the relative inaccessibility of the island. While arguments continue as to the origins of the name, the locals insisted it was “Goat Island”, a place dismissed by early would-be settlers on the basis that only goats could climb it. I’m with the locals.

A recent video that made its way to me via the internets makes this point forcefully:

The Huffington Post article also points t0 a Tumblr dedicated to goats standing on things.

Goats didn’t just give their name to the island of Capri. There is an argument that yet another of my staples, the wonderful caper, may come from the same root. While this is a topic of much dispute, I am comfortable with the view expressed by locals in many parts of Italy, Turkey and Cyprus: capers grow where only goats go.

If it walks like a goat and it talks like a goat, it’s a goat.

Where would I be without capers? For one thing, no puttanesca, which would be terrible. [Incidentally, there's another row brewing over the origins of that dish].

Amazing creatures, goats. Naming constellations in the skies. Labelling islands in the sun. Pointing towards pieces of our food. Helping protect us and shoe us, even feed us. So many of my favourite Spanish cheeses are made from goat milk, particularly the tronchon.

The queso de tronchon even makes its way int0 my favourite book, Don Quixote. [Incidentally, I collect anything and everything to do with Don Quixote. Different editions of the book, in different languages, with different illustrators. Figures and figurines. Objects ranging from buttons and necklaces and boxes and book covers through to bottles and even tables and cabinets. If it's Don Quixote, I'm interested. I have a few hundred items already, so I may not bid for everything].

Amazing creatures, goats.

Posted in Four pillars .

Thinking about Maccher Jhol and recipes and openness in general

I know, it’s been a while since I posted anything at all. Been busy reading, listening to people, thinking. Lots to think about. More of that later.

Maccher jhol. A spicy fish stew common in eastern parts of India, principally in West Bengal and Orissa. [I suspect it's common in Bangladesh as well, I just haven't experienced eating it there].

It’s spicy, it’s pungent, and so I don’t get the chance to cook it that often. I’ve had a few days to myself at home, and I didn’t pass up the opportunity.

Some of you wanted me to share the recipe. This I am doing. But I decided I’d go one step further and talk about openness in general using the construct of a recipe to illustrate what I’m trying to say.

Recipes are nothing more than sets of ingredients with instructions on how to combine those ingredients using a set of tools in some standardised way to make something consistently edible, perhaps even pleasing, as a result. Inputs. Some planned outputs. Instructions as to how to get to the outputs from the inputs. Instructions on the use of the tools, implements and equipment required.

You get my drift?

Now let’s move on to making a recipe “open”. What would such a recipe look like?

1. Open and unfettered access to the recipe itself, in as simple a form as possible

First and foremost, make sure that the content of the recipe can be got to by anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere. Unfettered. No lets or hindrances. Today, the commonest way someone has access to something is when it’s in text and available on the internet, readable by a browser without any proprietary plug-ins, not requiring some other software to “read” the recipe. Tomorrow, text and reading may not be the answer, or at least not the only answer. Maybe people will start listening to things again, or watching, or imitating. Maybe their choice will depend on their profile, their preferences, the constraints they operate under. I recognise that this post is not open enough just by it being in English. Which means that someone else will have to translate it in order to enfranchise non-English speakers. Which in turn means that I have to avoid using idiom in the recipe proper. “Add a smidgen of paprika here” may not be suitable for machine translation; paprika will work but smidgen may prove difficult. You say tomayto and I say tomaht0. Bear that in mind.

2. Based on using common tools, techniques and equipment

I don’t like using microwave ovens. I have used them, but usually when others want me to heat something up for them. But at least I have a microwave oven, which means I don’t get left out if a recipe requires me to use one.

It’s something to think about. Sometimes I’m looking around for a recipe and I see words like “Now use a food processor to….” and my heart sinks. Or “at this stage insert a meat thermometer into…”. Not everyone has a food processor or a meat thermometer. For some people, even “Now weigh out precisely 2 ounces of…” is a problem. When you start thinking global, you have to understand what equipment, tools and techniques are truly common, are truly likely to be generally available. That’s core to an understanding of openness.

3. Presenting ingredients in a way that bits can easily be substituted

People will want to substitute bits for a variety of reasons. The commonest one is that of availability. For maccher jhol, eelish or hilsa is not that easy to get in the UK. [I know where and how to get it, but it's always frozen and never locally sourced]. As we learn to care more deeply about local sourcing of ingredients, we have to think harder about how recipes are presented. The next commonest reason is that of preference, for religious or lifestyle reasons. Dishes involving beef or pork or shellfish or for that matter meat in general need to have a level of substitutability built in. For that matter, there may be someone who prefer to go hungry rather than eat tofu, so they too need to be accommodated. Once you’ve dealt with availability and preference, the main reason you’re left with is allergy or equivalent, an inability to cope with a particular ingredient. Some of my US friends have an aversion to coriander, or at least to what they call cilantro. I’m told there are large groups of people who will not eat garlic under any circumstances. And sometimes it’s more shades-of-grey: my family will handle only the low end of the Scoville Index when it comes to capsaicin, and they are not alone. For a recipe to be global and open and accessible, options on substitutability must be built in. Now this doesn’t have to be done in a spoonfed way, and not necessarily for every ingredient either. Common sense should be allowed to prevail. At the very least we need to be able to avoid branded lock-in ingredients; once that is done, perhaps all that is necessary is for the main two or three ingredients to have substitutes identified in the instructions.

On to the recipe for Maccher Jhol itself.

I find that a photograph of ingredients often helps me understand what’s going on. Now that may prove a problem for someone who only has access to text, or who’s listening to this post, so I have to make sure that the ingredients are clearly listed rather than just shown.

It’s also helpful to start the recipe with a clear indication of a few things, even before we come to ingredients and instructions. The number of servings. The minimum equipment needed. The total preparation time. So it is with instructions for anything. Think about the customer.

The first part of the recipe should deal with these criteria.


Fish stew; Eastern Indian style; no nuts, no wheat; you select the “heat” level

4 servings

A kadhai or wok or circular frying pan with deep sides is best, but any frying pan will do.

Total preparation and cooking time: 40 minutes.


8oz or 225gm of a firm fish, cleaned, filleted if needed and cut into half-inch slices (the original dish uses hilsa or rohu, a form of carp. You can use other carps or even salmon or trout. You don’t have to de-scale the fish).

1 large potato, sliced sideways. You can leave the skin on. [Here I am avoiding the word "scallop" in case it doesn't translate].

1 bulb garlic, peeled and chopped finely

2 large tomatoes, chopped crudely

5 shallots, peeled and chopped into slices (use 2 medium red onions if you can’t get shallots).

1 cup peas (if you prefer, use cauliflower or gourd).

4 chillies, trimmed and cut lengthwise. (Remove seeds if you want it milder. Leave out altogether if you don’t like chillies).

1 bunch coriander, chopped fine. (Use scissors rather than a knife).

1 inch ginger, chopped fine.

2 tsp salt

2 tsp cumin powder

2 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp dried powdered ginger

Half cup mustard oil (if not available use vegetable oil)

2 tsp mustard paste (only if mustard oil is unavailable)

1 tsp turmeric

1 bay leaf (optional)

2 tbsp plain yogurt (optional)

1 cup water

1/2 cup fish stock (optional)

1 tsp sugar

2 cups rice

Cooking instructions:

Step 1: Prepare the ingredients. Clean, cut, slice, chop as needed to get to the list above. When you finish, you should have something that looks like this:


Step 2: Take half a teaspoon of the cumin, coriander and turmeric powders, mix with the mustard oil and optional yogurt, and rub the mixture into the flesh of the fish. If you’re not using mustard oil, use vegetable oil and the 2 teaspoons of mustard instead, but leave out the yogurt in that case. Set the fish aside.

Step 3: Pour the remaining oil into the kadhai or wok. Heat the oil; once the oil’s hot, gently slide the fish slices in, cooking until they begin to brown, on medium heat, turning over once. Remove the fish and set aside. In a separate pan, boil water for the rice. Once the water’s boiling, add one tsp of salt, bring to boil, add the rice.

Step 4: Add the remaining cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt. Stir. Add the potato slices. Saute on medium heat until the slices begin to brown.

Step 5: Add everything except for one handful of chopped coriander, the water, fish stock and sugar. Stir gently for a minute. Then add the water and the fish stock (if you’re using it). Reduce to a simmer.

Step 6: Add the sugar. Stir. Bring back the fish. Stir very gently. Cover and let the whole thing simmer for five minutes.


Step 7: Drain the rice. Serve the rice on to plates or bowls. Take the stew off the heat, garnish with the coriander, serve.




Happy eating.

Let me know what you thought of this post, of the recipe, of the ideas behind this post, what worked for you, what didn’t.

And thanks for reading this far.

Posted in Four pillars .

Rollright Stones



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:



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!




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.


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



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 .

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