Murmurations on a Sunday morning

Murmuration. What a wonderful word. I remember being fascinated by collective nouns at school, particularly those to do with birds. An unkindness of ravens. A parliament of rooks. A murder of crows. An ostentation of peacocks.

And a murmuration of starlings. That one stuck with me. Really stuck with me. Particularly since I then had no idea what a starling looked like.

That was a long time ago. Now I know what starlings look like, and watch them visit my garden. I’ve even seen murmurations regularly. But I never tire of them. Which is why I was delighted to see this NBC video.

While on the subject of videos, I remember being a little surprised seeing this a few months ago:

sharevideoposts

Yet when I consider the number of videos that float past me in my Facebook and Twitter streams, the surprise wears off, to be replaced by stirrings of irritation. Never been a fan of videos kicking into life as if they had a life of their own. Not in my stream you don’t.

That past irritation notwithstanding, I’ve been delighted with a number of videos that have presented themselves to me in the recent past. Here’s a smattering:

First, one of my favourite songs. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Legend has it that Dylan is singing it publicly for the first time, for Donovan’s benefit.

Second, here’s a repeat of the violinist who plays Super Mario. Been around for about five years, now getting second wind after Joi Ito shared it.

More recently, the exact moment that Calbuco began to erupt, captured by a hiker:

And finally Sarychev erupting last year, as seen by NASA:

 

 

 

I Feel The Earth Move

 

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down, tumbling down
I feel my heart start to trembling
Whenever you’re around

Carole King: I Feel The Earth Move: Tapestry, 1971

Call me old. [If I wanted to be called Ishmael I would have changed my name by deed poll by now. So just call me old.]

Why? Because I still love this song, 44 years after I first heard it. I love the whole album. And I love listening to Carole King. And if that makes me old, so be it.

Yesterday’s New Scientist had a fascinating article on the unexpected origin of human values. [Sadly it’s paywalled; some of you may have access, my apologies to the others]. Ian Morris, the writer of the article, asserts:

The lesson of history seems clear. Human values are biologically evolved adaptations, just like the values of other primates; but the way we interpret those values are culturally evolved, and this makes us different from all other animals.

The notion of there being three modern ages of values — foraging, farming and fossil-fuel — supporting different levels of hierarchy and consequently different levels of inequality, is in itself quite intriguing, but not necessarily a surprise for those interested in the biology of values. But it brings into stark relief some of the challenges we face in dealing with the issues of today.

Many critical issues of the day are debated more on ideological grounds than on those of fact and evidence: climate change; GM crops; nutrition; water; energy, all suffer this problem.

That ideological fervour means that in many cases, strenuous attempts are made to make the facts hard to understand or interpret. So today, for example, I have a gnawing feeling that the German stance on nuclear fuel post-Fukushima is the right one, but it’s nothing more than a strong feeling, imbued with a sense that a pure focus on renewables is just logical. But I don’t have enough data to say “I know”.

Similarly, I have a sense that it costs the earth more to sustain a meat-eater than to sustain a vegetarian. That’s based on some facts, but still nowhere near enough for me to say “I know”. I haven’t seen longitudinal studies covering enough of the moving parts for me to feel certain. As Francis Bacon said so memorably five hundred years ago:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

I am content to begin with doubts on many things. I read extensively, have the freedom to express my opinion, have friends who challenge, refine and improve my thinking. And for this I am very grateful. It’s how I learn.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I feel the earth move.

Time for me to use the f-word.

Fracking.

Until recently, I’d had mild-to-medium misgivings about hydraulic fracturing. Even so I couldn’t avoid smiling when I read a few weeks ago that some New York towns want to secede and join Pennsylvania so that they could frack.

I thought to myself, this one’s going to run and run. With elections approaching in the UK, it comes as no surprise that we get statements that fracking is set to be banned from 40% of England’s shale areas. With another coalition government on the cards here, and remembering the shameless u-turns carried out by the various parties involved on the Digital Economy Act and on university fees, amongst others, we can remain confident that we’re going to see a number of u-turns on fracking. Now you see it, now you don’t. Find the lady. Politics.

And then, a few days ago, I read an article in the New Yorker. The Arrival of Man-Made Earthquakes. [Thanks to the New Yorker, no paywall].

It’s a long article, and well worth reading. I would commend it to every one of you who has an interest in this subject. And for those of you who treat fracking with jingoistic dollar-sign frenzy, or for those whose ideologies will not allow them to read the New Yorker article (in case the facts disagree with you), I present you with this one paragraph:

Until 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year. (Magnitude-3.0 earthquakes tend to be felt, while smaller earthquakes may be noticed only by scientific equipment or by people close to the epicenter.) In 2009, there were twenty. The next year, there were forty-two. In 2014, there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California. Including smaller earthquakes in the count, there were more than five thousand. This year, there has been an average of two earthquakes a day of magnitude 3.0 or greater.

2008: One or two. 2009: Twenty. 2010: Forty-two. 2014: Five hundred and eighty-five. 2015: Two a day.

Hmmm. Why let the facts get in the way of a good old-fashioned ideological argument?

I feel the earth/move/under my feet.

And so will you. And everyone else. Soon. At a fracking site near you.

“Let me just tell you what I think about it”: in memory of Richie Benaud

benaud1

Richie Benaud passed away yesterday. And the world of cricket cried at the passing of one of the greatest cricketers ever.

I never had the chance to meet Richie. I’ve been close, just a few yards away, as he spoke to the camera, near the boundary ropes, early on the first day of quite a few Tests, while I was in the small but enthusiastic throng on the other side of the ropes. I have books signed by him; I even have a wonderful large photograph of him duly signed, courtesy of the Willow Foundation, a charity well worth supporting. But I never met him.

But I know his voice, as do millions of other cricket fans. When I started my love affair with cricket — I watched my first-ever Test in December 1966 — Richie Benaud was the first and only cricketer to have done the “double double” of 2000 runs and 200 wickets in Test matches. In later years, I would learn more about his cricketing prowess by delving into his years as captain of Australia.

I never watched him play. As is the case with most people my age or younger, I experienced the brilliance of Richie mainly through his dry and witty commentary. Much has been written about it, much will be written, and usually by people who’ve met him and really spent time with him in the flesh; I cannot add to their wisdom or their number.

But what I can say is this: there are many other reasons to remember him, reasons that are really important in the world we live in.

Let me take just two.

He was that rare person, one who could embrace radical change while having earned, and continuing to hold, the respect of traditionalists.

The world of cricket today is so very different from the stage that he bestrode, with Twenty20 and with the IPL. A considerable part of the impetus for change came from the Kerry Packer “circus”, World Series Cricket. As a cricket-loving teenager in Calcutta, initially I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. And then I heard two things: that Eden Gardens darling Tony Grieg had signed up, and that Richie Benaud was involved.

Richie Benaud legitimised that change, a change that was to transform the world he came from. It takes a courageous leader to do that.

We may not see the crowds we used to see at Test matches, but I have my own views as to why that happens. They’re not views that would make me popular, and they’re not material to this post. Some other time.

What we have seen is significant improvement in the skill and fitness of players today, in the use of technology in the sport, and in the support the game gets overall, inclusive of broadcast and replay revenues. For example, today I was sent a clip of this amazing catch, and these somewhat unconventional yet effective shots.

The second reason why I admired Richie Benaud so much was this:

He knew that some things should always be constant, impervious to change, and he made sure the world remembered that.

Matthew Engel, in the Financial Times, writes in his lovely obituary of Benaud:

In a one-day international in 1981, Australian captain Greg Chappell prevailed on the bowler (his brother Trevor) to bowl the final ball underarm along the ground. This made it impossible for New Zealand to hit the six they needed for victory. The move was legal but unprecedented. Was it right?

Before signing off on air, Benaud pronounced:

Let me just tell you what I think about it. I think it was a disgraceful performance. It should never be permitted to happen again.

That’s how you lead in turbulent times. Embrace and encourage the changes that matter. Hold on to the things that shouldn’t change.

In so doing, Richie Benaud embodied both the spirit of the game as well as the spirit of the age.

He was once reported as having said something like “Glenn McGrath, out for 2, just 98 runs short of his century.

RIP Richie Benaud, out for 84, just 116 runs short of his double century.

Thinking lazily about inequality and freemium models

 

 

 

 

IMG_0832

We had lunch at Le Cafe des Chats in the Marais a few days ago. My youngest daughter is a confirmed card-carrying ailurophile. And a delightful time was had by all. [By the way. Le Marais. Means roughly the same thing as Slough.  Life can be so unfair.]

We’d chosen a hotel, Jules et Jim in the 3rd arrondissement, located such that we could walk to most of the places we wanted to visit. Which meant that we could also have a meal at Derriere. There I sampled the finest carrot-based dish I’d ever had the privilege of being served. Julienned carrots, in coats of many colours. Some olive oil, lemon juice, fresh coriander, salt. All lightly sautéed. Heaven.

IMG_0852

A glorious weekend. Lovely people, delightful conversations, meals to die for. Over one of those meals, the conversation meandered on to the cost of living. People at the table felt that London was far more expensive than Paris, based strictly on two criteria. Housing. Transport.

That was in the back of my mind when I was reading an article in the Economist headlined Land-shackled economies: The Paradox of Soil. Well worth a read; and if you have the time, also read Urban Land: Space and The City, in the same issue.

As the article notes, people like Thomas Piketty have already remarked on the role played by housing wealth in the growth of inequality; many of the diagrams in the Economist article are taken from Piketty’s work, Capital in the 21st Century. It also refers to the paper by Matthew Rognlie (of MIT) on Piketty and diminishing returns to capital. Also worth a read.

One particular paragraph in the Economist briefing captured my attention disproportionately:

But that process is now breaking down in many economies. For workers to move to the high wages on offer in San Francisco, they must win an auction for a home that provides access to the local labour market. The bidding in that auction pushes up housing costs until there are just enough workers interested in moving in to fill the available housing space. Salaries that should be sending come-hither signals are ending up with rentiers instead, and the unfairness can trigger protest, as it has in San Francisco. Many workers will take lower-paying jobs elsewhere because the income left over after paying for cheaper housing is more attractive. Labour ends up allocating itself toward low-productivity markets, and the whole economy suffers.

Many workers will take lower-paying jobs elsewhere because the income left over after paying for cheaper housing is more attractive. Hmmm. Just a day or two earlier, a friend of mine had tweeted links to a 2013 paper by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne for my attention: The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? As you would expect, my thoughts turned to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s  The Second Machine Age (along with their prior book Race Against The Machine).

Housing wealth and inequality. Skills, jobs and inequality. Urbanisation and inequality. It was only a matter of time before I went back and delved again into the research of Geoffrey West et al. at the Santa Fe Institute on cities, scaling and sustainability. And from there it was but a short step before I found myself re-reading UN studies on urbanisation, with claims that 60% of the world’s population would be living in cities by 2030. That’s fifteen years away. That’s in the lifetime of most of the people alive today.

The UN study states that in 1800, 2% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 1950 that number was 30%. By 2000 it was 47%.

And by 2030 it will be 60%.

Over the past year I’ve had the joy (I use that word advisedly, very ill-advisedly) of making three-hour road journeys in London, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Dubai. Joy indeed. Given the choice, I would rather chop chillies bare-handed and then rub my eyes.

Choice.

Many workers will take lower-paying jobs elsewhere because the income left over after paying for cheaper housing is more attractive.

Whenever people speak of equality, I tend to think of what was drummed into me at school. A school run by Jesuits in the capital city of what was then a democratically elected communist state. I was taught to fight for the equality of opportunity, as opposed to the equality of outcome.

Choice.

The Economist article avers that we have to do radical things about planning/zoning laws in cities, particularly those that have become knowledge-economy hubs. Radical things that will sharply increase population density in those cities. That made me start imagining a San Francisco, a Berlin, a Tel Aviv, a Cambridge (Mass., or England, take your pick), with the traffic patterns of Sao Paulo or Bengaluru. Hmmm.

The rebel in me wasn’t that sure about it. Wasn’t there a Mahomet and the Mountain choice to be made, a Great Birnam Wood and High Dunsinane Hill choice to be made? Something I will be spending time thinking about.

Which reminds me. I’ve also been fascinated by the to-ing and fro-ing of arguments about freemium models.

The debates have been quite heated in the music industry, particularly since the advent of streaming services like Spotify. “Why should people be able to get to and enjoy the output of hard work by musicians? Surely musicians deserve to be paid for what they do. Surely a labourer is worthy of his salt. What’s with all this free stuff?”

You know what I mean. And it’s easy to side with such arguments. Free is stealing.

Hmmm.

I’ve tended to think of freemium a little differently. I think many societies have freemium models implicit in them. I think many communities have freemium models implicit in them.

In the UK 30 million people pay taxes. The other half don’t. Around 4.5m of the taxpayers pay higher rate taxes. In any active electronic community, there’s some sort of 80-15-5 rule in operation. 80% of the participants don’t actually participate, they lurk. Another 15% are active. And the remaining 5% are hyperactive.

Humanity is in essence social, and one of the benefits of society is to be able to deal with these asymmetries. Sometimes when I look at freemium models I see society. Some pay. Because they can. And everyone benefits.

That works as long as the sum of the payments is enough to cover the costs of everyone’s “benefits”. Which is not always the case, and why we have problems with health, education and welfare. Or for that matter music streaming.

These are some of the things I’m thinking about right now. Why do I write about it? So that I can learn from you, and from the references and pointers you give me.

In the meantime, I hope I’ve given you a few things to read and to think about. Happy reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not fade away. And a House on Coco Road.

 

Some of you are probably asking yourselves “Why the Grateful Dead? Why not the Rolling Stones?” Every time you hear this song, a part of you goes Stones!

Some of you may be asking yourselves “Why the Grateful Dead? Why not Buddy Holly?” After all, he co-wrote it and then was the first to perform it, with the Crickets.

Your experience matters. Where you heard the song, when you heard it, what you were doing at the time, whom you were with, the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded you.

How you experienced it matters.

That’s why I chose the Grateful Dead. Every time I hear this song, they’re the ones that come into my mind. Even though I know who wrote it and who first played it and who made it really famous.

How you experienced it matters.

History has always been about people and experiences. When those experiences are shared at human scale, they take on a life of their own. That’s why eyewitness accounts matter. That’s why contemporaneous records matter.

It’s said that history gets written by winners. But sometimes victories can be Pyrrhic, and it’s hard to figure out who really won.

I can see from your coat, my friend, you’re from the other side

There’s just one thing I got to know

Who won?

[And that gives me an excuse to plug one of my favourite versions of one of my favourite songs. I was torn between choosing one of the early Crosby Stills and Nash versions, or going for a classic Kantner/Slick Jefferson Airplane version. Wooden Ships happens to be written by Crosby and Nash. And Kantner. So I couldn’t decide. They were both integral parts of my memories of the song. I went for a version that had Crosby as well as Slick.]

Memories.

I was there.

I. Was. There.

History is at its most interesting, at its most engaging, when it’s written by people who can say “I was there”. Memories.

History used to be by humans, about humans.

Humans have had memories ever since humans had humans. But it hasn’t always been easy to share those memories. Archiving them, “persisting” them, so that they can be shared across generations, that used to be hard. Doing a Lazarus on those memories, bringing them back to life in audio or video, that used to be hard as well.

When the power to print and publish was held by a narrow elite, history was written by “winners”. When the power to record, to edit, to publish audio was held by a narrow elite, history was heard through the voices of “winners”. When the power to film, to edit, to publish video was held by a narrow elite, history was seen through the eyes of “winners”.

Those powers are democratising now. Those powers are available to all of us. There are those who are unhappy with this state of affairs, as their erstwhile powers erode. But for humankind as a whole, this is a Good Thing.

History can be recorded, archived, shared, read, heard and seen at human scale now. For years we’ve lived with the broadcast paradigm and for years we’ve felt an increasing loss of authenticity. That’s not to say that everything that was broadcast lacked authenticity, far from it. But the ethos of broadcast was riddled with that risk.

Today, in the era of the internet and the web and smart mobile devices and increasingly better connectivity, we don’t face those challenges. Instead, we face new ones, to do with airbrushing and Photoshop and provenance and curation. We face new ones to do with the longevity of the materials and techniques we use to record and archive our memories.

But they’re new problems, and we will find new solutions.

In the meantime, we should celebrate our new-found abilities to be part of the historical record at human, individual scale, yet always in community. Because that’s part of what makes us human.

Crowdfunding techniques allow us to become patrons at human scale, to allow people to capture and share their memories of the momentous events that they were part of, that shaped their lives. Events that we may all learn from, become vicarious participants in, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, always human.

That is why I chose to participate in the Kickstarter campaign for The House On Coco Road. It’s the shape of things to come, about the shape of things that once were.

Take a look at the trailer for the documentary. And then decide whether you want history to be human again, to be by humans about humans. Make that house on Coco Road part of your history. Because today you can.