Desafinado

Desafinado.

Portuguese for “Slightly out of tune”. And the name of a wonderful bossa nova song written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. A song that made its way into my heart via the brilliance of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd et al on an album called Jazz Samba.

117708760-2

I didn’t just fall in love with the song, I fell in love with the very word itself, what it meant, what it stood for. Slightly. Out. Of. Tune. I was eighteen or nineteen and it described, perfectly, how I felt about myself and about the world then.

[I was lucky enough to be able to see Charlie Byrd when he visited Calcutta soon after, something I wrote about here.]

At the heart of my slightly-out-of-tune-ness was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on then, a sense of being at peace while in disequilibrium.

That was a long time ago, while I was still in my teens. In eighteen months time I will be 60.

This morning I went shopping for a razor. Ever since I left India, in 1980, I’ve been a Gillette man, listening to the siren call of their marketing while moving from the Trac II through the Sensor and the Sensor Excel to the Mach. More recently I dallied with King of Shaves and then tried one of these newfangled subscription services.

I don’t particularly like shaving; I’d much rather have a beard; but my wife doesn’t like beards, they’re not easy to keep clean and now I have to think about how my grandson would feel. So I go shopping for a razor.

Of late, particularly since I switched away from Gillette, I have been less than happy with my shave. Five o’clock shadow at variable times of day. So I went shopping for a razor.

FullSizeRender

That’s the kind of razor my father used. Maybe old habits die hard. But it’s the kind of razor that I came back home with today. Habits. What would you do without them?

It wasn’t quite the razor my dad used. What was metal was now ceramic. The child, the young man, the nostalgist in me, only wanted one thing: that the blade-box had a tiny slit through which I could slide the next blade when needed. And it did. So all was fine with the world.

IMG_4525

Hmmm. Why am I prattling on about razors and shaving? Have I finally lost it (if I ever had it, I hear you murmur)?

That blade, that blade-box, that razor, they all represent something that’s been part of my ethos ever since I could use words like ethos.

And that is this: to be able to cherish and hold the past while knowing it will never be back, to live in and to keep learning from the present knowing it will soon be past, and to look forward to the future and to keep applying whatever I’ve learnt, knowing that it too will pass.

[Occasionally I run out of steam or joy or optimism or whatever, and for a very short period I am empty. Blank. At my wits’ end. But those times are rare, and they too tend to pass.]

I love spending time with my mother and with my siblings, with my cousins and aunts and uncles, the family I grew up with, and I love reminiscing with them.  I do that in the here-and-now.

I love spending time with my school and college friends, some of whom I’ve kept in touch with for over fifty years. I love keeping in touch with colleagues whom I’ve worked with over the past four decades.

I love spending time with my wife and my children and my grandchildren (OK, my single solitary grandchild, if you insist on being pedantic; I live in the hope and expectation of more, many more).

Memories. Memories of shared experiences, of laughter and tears, of pleasure, even occasionally of pain.

It’s not wrong to look back and to remember, fondly, how things used to be.

It’s important to see that things have changed. When I meet my mother and siblings, I have to understand that they are not the family I left in India when I migrated to England in 1980. They have experiences that weren’t shared with me, experiences with their husbands and wives and children and colleagues and neighbourhoods; experiences with laughter and with tears. Memories.

When I go to Calcutta, I have to remember not just that it’s not the Calcutta I left in 1980. I have to remember that it will never be the Calcutta I left in 1980. It too has experiences that aren’t shared with me.

Change is not an easy thing to deal with. Cataclysmic change even less so. When I was younger I was fascinated by stories of great civilisations. How they came into being. And how they stopped being. How what’s left of them influences what today is.

Even today, I continue to be fascinated by the rise and fall of many things: civilisations, empires, cities, towns, religions, fashions, diets, everything. Which means I read and re-read a strange pantheon of writers: Jane Jacobs. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Joseph Tainter. Just to give you a few examples.

Change is not an easy thing to deal with. Cataclysmic change even less so.

Some people would like to Make America Great Again. Some people would like to Make America Great Britain Again. We want to airbrush and photoshop history, we want to cocoon ourselves and escape from today’s reality.

We want to turn back time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if…..

Many of the things we invent to solve some problem or the other come with the risk of creating new problems while solving old ones. Much of our angst comes from using tools designed to solve old problems to try and solve new ones.

We want to put the genie back in the bottle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if….

I want to be able to marvel at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, at Indus Valley Civilisation, in just the same way as I want to marvel at Incan or Aztec or Mayan or Greek or Roman or Egyptian civilisation. I want to be able to look at the chili pepper I am about to eat and reminisce about the role that Columbus and da Gama played in introducing that spice into Indian cuisine. I want to be able to celebrate and to mourn the past without trying to force-fit it into the present.

Kevin Kelly, in one of his excellent books, said something about one of the roles of technology being to speed up evolution. I like that. I really like that. [Incidentally, I hope to be spending time reading his latest book, The Inevitable, as soon as I can lay my hands on it].

There’s a lot of anger in the world right now. Maybe it’s always been there, but right now it feels to me as if I’ve never seen this level of anger before.

If that anger was deeply rooted in seriously depressed economies, large swathes of people completely unable to make ends meet, increasing ill health, severe repression, considerable growth in crime, a general and growing concern about personal safety,  and a bleak outlook for the future overall, then it’s the kind of anger that makes for revolutions. Maybe. My gut says it isn’t so. My gut says it’s more to do with the sweeping changes we’ve had even in my short lifetime, and the disaffection that such change entails.

For sure there’s a lot of turmoil. States “failing”. Refugees in their millions. Whatever the reason and the stimulus, there’s a lot of turmoil.

That turmoil doesn’t just challenge the status quo, it sets back any attempt to reverse that status quo back into a cherished past. Make <historical-civilisation-of-choice> great again.

So there’s a lot of anger. Some of that anger is directed at the pillars of erstwhile society: the government, the politicians, the priests, the policemen, the financiers, the industrialists. Big is not beautiful in such times. Some of that anger is directed at the symptoms of change, some at the tools of change.

The anger is about the change.

Not all of that change is reversible.

So I remain unangry. I remain desafinado.

Slightly out of tune.

 

 

 

 

Routing around obstacles

 

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. So said John Gilmore in an article published over twenty years ago. A few years later John Perry Barlow came up with A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

1407868845000-max-yasgur

Growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, people like me thought of this guy as a hero. Max Yasgur. A stream of consciousness that included Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills and Nash and Matthews Southern Comfort. Camping out on the land and setting my soul free.

My grandfather’s generation lived through two world wars and a struggle for independence; my father’s generation through a good deal of that; Korea and Vietnam were soon t0 follow, and the Middle East was all set to take centre stage.

Not surprisingly, many in the generation I was and am part of took heart at the promise of community, of togetherness, of connected people changing the world. Not surprisingly, that is likely to have influenced much of how I thought about the internet, the Web, connected communities. I wasn’t alone in that, whole shelves of books have probably been written about it.

That’s the kind of reason why I’ve always said that the roots of my understanding of open source were more in the Grateful Dead and in the Well than in anything else.

This optimism had an early payoff. Those who were in India between 1975 and 1977 will remember the Emergency. Dark days. Totalitarian control. Terror. Censorship. Opposition in jail. Total. Control.

And then they called an election.

The opposition cried foul.

And yet.

The opposition won.

I was 17 when the Emergency began, 19 when it ended. Many said that the 1977 election was the greatest show democracy had ever put on.

I believed.

Roll forward to today.

Polarised opinion everywhere. Polarisation that quickly became hate, with physical violence close to the surface, leaking out here and there. Extremism. Guerrilla terrorism. People and parties hitherto considered unelectable getting elected, with the likelihood of more to come. A connected world getting rapidly disconnected. Barriers coming up, not just the ones of the past, but new ones as well. Hatred everywhere.

Hmmm.

That wasn’t the way it was meant to be.

I grew up in the Summer of Love. I was seeing something closer to the Winter of Hate.

Hmmm.

As a grandfather, I found myself in the same place that many generations before me had found themselves. What kind of world are we bringing our descendants into? Is it better or worse than the one we came into?

I believe in the power of connected people working together for good. I believe that those connections get harder and harder to game, to filter centrally, to control. I believe that as a result this world can be a better place.

I believe there doesn’t have to be a continuing Winter of Hate. But it needs three things.

Ubiquitous, affordable connectivity.

Education.

More than anything else, a respect for human dignity, a tolerance for diversity.

Whatever happens with the current polarised debates, referenda, elections, wars and terrorism, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong; there is an after to come, an after where there are no winners and losers. Just people who have to learn to live together.

That “after” requires all three things: the connectivity, the education, the respect for human dignity.

That’s what we have to ensure we leave to our children’s children.

Routing around obstacles.

Thinking about unGoogleable questions and cricket

Please note: Unless you’re a complete cricket statto nerd, this post is unlikely to be of the slightest interest to you. [Updated following comments. See below].

Many years ago, I used to take pleasure in setting questions that were hard to answer via Google.

My favourite example was this: In Test cricket, we are currently playing Test numbers 2197 and 2198. In each Test, we can have up to 44 “completed innings”, if all 11 players bat twice. So we have, as of today, a maximum of 2198×44 or close to 100,000 individual “completed innings” scores. In practice the total number of completed innings is much lower, probably closer to 50,000.

The lowest possible completed innings is 0. The highest achieved so far is Brian Lara’s 400. All the other innings completed so far are somewhere between 0 and 400.

Now imagine you have a Bingo card with all the numbers from 0 to 400. Imagine every completed innings to be a number called at the bingo session.

My unGoogleable question used to be: What is the lowest unscratched number on the card? But since I’ve written about it years ago, the answer is  now easily discoverable. It’s 229. No batsman has ended a Test innings on 229 thus far.

Obviously this number moves. The last time it moved was when Herschelle Gibbs scored 228 almost exactly thirteen years ago.

When Gibbs scored 228, there were one hundred and seventeen unscratched numbers between 228 and 400.

This past year, 2015, was a bumper year for scratches. We lost 245 to Shoaib Malik, 263 to Alastair Cook, 269 to Adam Voges and 290 to Ross Taylor.

Here’s what has happened since Gibbs’ 228:

  • 2003: Hayden scratches 280
  • 2004: Tendulkar lays aside 241 and 248; Atapattu flays 249; Sehwag takes out 309; Jayasuriya removes 253; and Lara blasts 400. A record year, six scratched.
  • 2005: Gayle hammers 317
  • 2006: Jayawardene slams 374
  • 2007: A fallow year
  • 2008: Sehwag (again!) takes out 319
  • 2009: Sehwag (yet again!) demolishes 293 and Younis does the same to 313
  • 2010: Another fallow year
  • 2011: Cook (who also shone last year) erases 294
  • 2012: Fallow
  • 2013: Fallow
  • 2014: Fallow (though Sangakkara doubled up Sehwag’s 319)
  • 2015: 245 (Shoaib) 263 (Cook) 269 (Voges) 290 (Taylor) disappear

So, since Herschelle Gibbs hit his 228, we’ve seen seventeen of the unscratched go, four last year alone.

Just one hundred more to go.

Of predictions and predicaments

It’s that time of year when people write predictions for the year to come. I’ve done that, many times. If predictions for are what you’re looking for, then you’ve been brought here on false pretences. This post is about my predicament.

I’m looking for help. I’m looking for you to tell me people to go listen to, books and articles to read, places to go, things to do, anything that would help me learn more about my predicament.

Let me try and describe it as best I can.

My grandfather said something very depressing to me when I was around 12. He told me that my generation would be the one with peak longevity, that life expectancy would start to decline in years to come, probably for the first time in recorded history.

Friends of mine have been saying something else that’s very depressing. Again, for the first time in recorded history, it would appear that you have to be rich to be thin.

Longevity, health, nutrition, these are some of the ways we set out the problems of our age. Sure, every age has its problems; our ancestors had theirs; our descendants will have theirs. I shall resist the temptation to say “if we have descendants”. Suffice it to say our descendants will have theirs.

 

Each generation’s problems can appear to be unique, and perhaps they are. Our particular set comprises water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Perhaps they’re not that unique after all.

What’s unique about our generation is that the costs of movement and of communications have dropped precipitously, and continue to drop. Humankind’s propensity to migrate and to connect may have always been there, but that propensity has been constrained by barriers of cost and affordability.

That is less true now. Humans are able to connect, to communicate and to move in ways that our predecessors could only have dreamt of.

These two phenomena affect everything we do, and they’re both accelerating, with exponential growth in their effect. Some people call this “the second half of the chessboard”.

Everything is affected. Everything.

We can’t think of our world in isolation, it’s connected. To other objects in space, not just in our solar system but beyond. We’re slowly learning what that connectedness means. Breakthroughs in our understanding of physics a century ago are helping us do that. And that’s affecting the way we think of ourselves, our origins, our purpose.

We can’t think of the countries we live in in isolation, they’re connected. Which puts a great deal of pressure on our political and economic and financial and social systems. As you would expect, the pressure is telling, and major cracks are showing in all these systems. There’s a natural temptation to “contain the problem”, to introduce greater and greater frictions, to build and extend walls to contain human, intellectual and financial capital within legacy frameworks. Those responses are failing, and there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth as a result. Political, economic and social systems are showing signs of extreme instability, and “failed states” have become more common.

We can’t think of the way we live in isolation, in terms of what we produce and what we consume, when, where and how. We’re connected. Everything we do has consequences that affect others. Water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Here we go again.

We can’t think of our own bodies the way we did, as we learn more about the genome and about the biome. The way we inherit and pass on physical characteristics is something we continue to investigate and refine our understanding of.

We can’t even think of our own minds the way we used to, as we learn more about how ideas form and spread, how values take hold, how we form economic and social systems, how these evolve. Theories of group selection in this context are regaining momentum.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

Much of who we are and what we do is based around the individual. The way we think of ourselves. We use phrases like “no man is an island” and then appear to spend time making us into individual islands. If any part of the fabric of society exhibits group instincts we try and nullify them.

Our ideas of property are based around the individual. Our ideas of employment are based around the individual. Our ideas of happiness are based around the individual. Our ideas of privacy are based around the individual. Our ideas of capability are based around the individual. Our ideas of relationships are based around the individual. Our ideas of trust are based around the individual.

Our ideas of health, education and welfare are all based around the individual.

The internet of <choose the term du jour>.

Our ideas of everything are based around the individual.

And we’re learning that we are actually more connected in every dimension we can think of, and potentially getting more connected every day.

Hmmm. Something has to change.

So I want to learn more about networks and relationships. I want to learn more about what makes them tick. I want to learn about the data that all this throws off. I want to learn about the implications of all this.

That’s why I’m interested in web science.

Because I believe that it represents a possible way for us to deal with the problems of our generation.

And that’s where I need your help. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, and each day I realise how little I know. I want to accelerate my learning. You represent an amazing resource. You know things I don’t. Help me learn. I will share what I learn back here.

Have a great 2016.

 

 

holiday reading

Serious downtime is something I’ve grown to cherish more and more as I’ve grown older. I take care to ensure that as little as possible is planned into the downtime, other than to spend time with my family and with myself.

When it comes to my own time, there are two things I plan in detail. What I’m going to read. What I’m going to watch.

The watching bit is easy. As little as possible.

The reading bit takes a little more work, it’s something I start preparing for months in advance.

Some of you have asked me to share my holiday reading list, so here it is, in no particular order.

  1. Alice Roberts, The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being
  2. Lou Beach, 420 Characters
  3. Cervantes and Davis, The Complete Don Quixote
  4. Jeffery Pomerantz, Metadata
  5. Michael Pearce, The Mouth Of The Crocodile
  6. Jenkins, Ito and boyd: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era
  7. Ilan Stavans, Quixote: The Novel and the World
  8. Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings
  9. Weisman, The World Without Us
  10. Brunton and Nissenbaum, Obfuscation

I’m quite excited by the list. I’ve already started the Ilan Stavans, reading it for the first time. Amazing. The Wiener and Weismans are both second time around. I’ve skipped through Metadata as well as Obfuscation, this time I’ll be giving them a serious read, fountain pen and notebook ready to hand. The rest are virgin territory.