of graveyards and golf courses: A perspective on perspective

When I was a child, I loved seeing photographs of everyday things from not-everyday perspectives. I think the first such thing I remember marvelling about was what a human hair looked like under a powerful microscope. It looked a bit like this image from “Long Hair Community” via Google:

I’m still fascinated by such out-of-normal-perspective images. More recently I came across the work of Pyanek, who appears to dabble in such stuff. Here’s his view of pages from a book.

It’s not just close-in that is interesting, zooming out is as mesmerising. I love flying, and spend a lot of time on planes. When on a plane, I tend to read and write rather than watch films. The odd documentary perhaps, but that’s about it.

In addition, when possible, I enjoy looking out of the window. Even now, seated at home, I marvel at the thought of how placid and glassine the ocean looks when viewed from 37000 feet. After a while you get to recognise the signs of movement even at that distance.

When I’m taking off or coming in to land, I make an effort to try and recognise “objects” from afar. You’d be surprised at the altitude from which you can, with confidence, say to yourself “That’s a golf course” or “that’s a graveyard”. With a little practice it becomes quite enjoyable.

There’s always a coming-home segment to my flights, and I live in Windsor, which means I get to do something unusual. View my house while coming in to land at Heathrow. It only happens when we approach from that side, but it happens often enough for me to know the signs. And so I try and “lock on” to the path as early as possible, filing away telltale signs from distance.

After a while I found I could do it regardless of the approach; coming over Canary Wharf and following the Thames became as recognisable as flying in over Windsor Great Park, circling to the north-west before making the approach became familiar as well.

I still remember the unfettered joy of looking down from maybe 10000 feet and realising that what I was seeing was fireworks at dusk. An amazing feeling.

There’s something special about looking at things from very close or very far away; something to learn about the thing in question; something to help you get balance into your view; something calming, sometimes even therapeutic.

We use phrases like “get the big picture” or “see the wood for the trees”; I am not sure how often we get to practise changing perspective.

Practice in changing perspective is not just a distance thing, it’s a time thing as well. Every morning, as I prepare for the day ahead, I ask myself “what’s the one thing I’d like to get done today”. But I also ask myself regularly “what’s the one thing I’d like to do this year”.

Sometimes I do this looking backwards rather than forwards. “What’s the one thing I achieved last year”. Sometimes it’s with a more critical twist: “what’s the one thing I would have liked to have done last year”.

Changing perspective can be enjoyable, instructive, even illuminating. Changing perspective in the grain size of what you look at: very small to very large, very near to very far; changing perspective forward and back in time; each of these exercises can be valuable.

Today, with the tools of social media, you can test questions like “most played/watched/read this day, this week, this month, this year”. We should be able to apply the same techniques to issues beyond just entertainment.

Sometimes the platforms give you the ability to change context: trending globally, trending in country A, trending locally. This should be something we should also be able to do in time rather than just geography.

It becomes even more important when you can point the mechanism towards “trending amongst people whom I trust and whose opinion on this topic matters to me”.

We will get there, as we learn the real potential and value of the friend graph .

I intend to write more about this; I’m not sure when, but it will happen. My urge to write has been weakened by the polarisation and politics and sheer venom I see around me.

I’m going to be 60 in a few months. My second grandchild is due any moment. Some of the people I care for aren’t well. Some of them aren’t here any more.

There is a lot we cannot control. And there is a lot we can change. That we must change.

To make the right changes we must understand. Understanding requires being able to stand in someone else’s shoes. Or footprints.

Perspective matters. The ability to change perspective, and to learn from that change, matters. The ability to hold on to what matters also matters, as you learn from a variety of perspectives.

 

 

 

Making new mistakes

C1842.jpg

This is part of a map of Calcutta published in 1842. It’s the city I was born in, the city I grew up in, the city that was my home for the first twenty-three years of my life. A city I remember with fond memories and one I visit with joy in my heart. [Incidentally, it’s a map whose original is safely with me, and whose copyright might just have expired by now, 175 years later…]

The city shown above is a very different city from the one I grew up in.

I was born in Lower Circular Road, Sealdah, in 1957. A few years later, after the death of his father, my father moved us to Hindustan Park, Ballygunge, and that’s where I stayed till 1969. That would have meant nothing to the people who lived in Calcutta when the map was drawn. There wasn’t much happening in Ballygunge then. Fields.

The house I was born in had a bloody great railway station close by. It didn’t start getting built till 1869. The Jesuit school and college I went to, St Xavier’s, aren’t on the map either. All you see are what I think are the grounds to the Bishop’s Palace, some of which became my alma mater in 1860.

The house I inhabited during my last decade in Calcutta, on Moira Street, wasn’t built by then. But the road existed. Theatre Road is on the map, with a massive theatre at the Chowringhee end. The road was still there when I was there, but sans theatre. Free School Street, where I could buy secondhand books and albums cheaply, is shown; it then still had a Free School on it; I know the road but never saw the school.

I whiled away many hours in the New Market, Lindsay Street. That didn’t get built till 1874, more than thirty years after the map above. Fenwick’s Bazaar, the reason why New Market was “new”, doesn’t make the grade, either nonexistent or too small to count.

Victoria Memorial, another place I spent many hours in, doesn’t make the map. Not surprising, since Victoria was very much alive and not a subject of memorials when the map was drawn. She would get her memorial later, built between 1906 and 1921.

I rarely left Calcutta during my time there; when I did, it was usually by train, from Howrah Station. I have wonderful memories of that place, the sights, sounds and smells. Buying platform tickets in large quantities as we greeted or saw off family members. Remembering where the car was parked, off Platform 9, always for some reason near a damp part of the platform, and never far from a bookseller. Watching the redshirted coolies go about their business, as kitchen-sink holdalls and trunks were transported along with their kitchen-sink owners.

No Howrah Station on the map. Hadn’t been built. If it had been built, it would have been a job getting there. No Howrah Bridge there. That would come later.

No Lansdowne Road, where Miss P. Hartley set up her school in a converted stables, my happy home from 1963-1965. That was opposite where Gyan Singh used to live, the Gyan who influenced my taste in music more than anyone else, the Gyan who married my cousin Jayashree (who was almost as big an influence on my musical taste), the Gyan whose son is the Singh in Parekh and Singh. The Gyan I still miss. (And Jayashree, get well soon!).

Memories.

The Calcutta of the map is a very different Calcutta from the one I grew up in.

Just like today.

The Calcutta of today is also one that’s very different from the one I grew up in.

This post is not a wallowing-in-nostalgia post. Instead, what I’m trying to do is to emphasise the importance of knowing past contexts.

Esther Dyson, someone I admire greatly, someone I’ve learnt a lot from listening to, reading and observing, used to sign off her emails with “Always make new mistakes”. I loved that. It made complete sense in the “I have not failed, I have found ten thousand ways that do not work” mould.

To make new mistakes, you must know what the old mistakes were. To interpret an action as a mistake, context is critical. Without that the correct lesson isn’t learnt, and we get into a “history repeats itself” cycle.

Every organisation I join, every organisation I spend time with, I try and understand what went on earlier. The context in which prior decisions were made. The assumptions, the consequences. It is only in that hindsight that the unintention of the consequences becomes clear.

Without that contextual awareness of the decisions and the history, I can’t be sure I’m making new mistakes.

Much has been made of the need for organisations to become learning organisations. A learning organisation is a failing organisation. It must be a failing organisation, but with a difference. Failures aren’t repeated. They are learnt from.

Many organisations are set up to militate against failure. That militancy is deep in organisation culture. And in that very militancy lie the roots of real failure, the failure that comes from not learning.

Making new mistakes is hard if you don’t know about the mistakes of the past. You don’t need to re-make the mistakes of the past in order to learn from them. But you must know about them. And know the context in which they were made.

That requires a cultural willingness to accept mistakes, to record them, to understand the context in which they were made, and to understand what was done to deal with the root cause.

Not all the maps I study are geographical in nature. Some of them aren’t maps. Some aren’t even written. But they all give me context in which to understand and learn from past mistakes.

So that I can keep making new ones.

 

 

 

musing about mise-en-place

If you know me well then you know I love to cook.

When I cook, one of the things I do is based on what professional chefs call mise en place.

Take yesterday for example. I was cooking a ragu for the family; it wasn’t gramigna alla salsiccia, my usual favourite, because I couldn’t get the gramigna and didn’t have time to make the pasta from fresh. So I got some fresh egg spaghetti instead … especially since my grandson adores spaghetti. The two-year-old makes the demolition of spaghetti an art form, as only two-year-olds can.

But I stayed true to making the ragu a salsiccia of sorts. And I wanted to make sure the sauce was allowed to cook for at least six hours, preferably more like eight. So I got started yesterday morning, and the first thing I did was this:

I laid out the ingredients. You can’t see the sausage meat or the pork mince or the beef mince (they’re all still in the fridge) nor can you see the milk (which was keeping the meat company in the fridge, in separate compartments of course).

I try and do it every time I cook; it’s something that professional chefs do. I’m lucky enough to have visited many great chefs at work in their kitchens, and privileged to call a number of them good friends. If they think something’s a good idea, whom am I to argue?

I find the whole process of preparing the mise-en-place instructive, often uplifting, sometimes even cathartic. Preparing the ingredients by hand gets you involved in the cooking in ways that you just couldn’t otherwise. For example, you get to really know the aroma released by a herb when you crush or tear it by hand; you get to feel the texture of the soffrito ingredients, a feeling that helps you figure out when they are truly soffrito, under-fried. And if you’re like me, you graze not-quite-absentmindedly on the leftovers while you peel, chop and crush. By the time you’ve laid all the ingredients out you have a heightened sense of the smell, taste and texture of the dish.

From a practical viewpoint, you get to perform a visual check, a quick way to confirm that everything is in its place and that there’s a place for everything. So there’s no oopsing and traipsing off to get the missing ingredient, you can proceed serenely.

There’s also something else. If you do this every time you cook a particular dish, you get a real feel for proportion, for the relationships between the various ingredients. When you couple this “proportion” knowledge with the “smell, taste and texture” from the process of preparation, you have something very powerful: you can experiment with accentuating or diminishing the character of the dish in subtle ways, because you know something about how they fit together. You know it deep inside you.

I love music but wouldn’t call myself a musician. A crass amateur guitarist at best. When I see real musicians, I know they feel their way about a piece of music in a similar way: they know, instinctively, what goes with what, and how they can vary things, the proportions, the sequences, the lot. I have no such feel for music. Even though I love music, I love musical instruments, I love listening to music, I love going to concerts. Even though I have good friends (including close relatives) who are really talented. (For example, I’m at the Dylan concert on Tuesday, and watching  my nephew’s band Parekh and Singh a week or two later. Check them out. Really looking forward to both events).

When you’re cooking something like a ragu, there’re a few added benefits. You can wash and clear away all the utensils while you’re putting the sauce through its early paces, as it does its egg-larva-pupa-imago transformation. Which looks a bit like this, going clockwise from top left:

I don’t taste the sauce while it’s in the first two quadrants; I need to be sure the meat is cooked sufficiently before I intervene. But I smell it all the way. For sure. And I stir it regularly to get a sense of the texture. If interventions are required, the earlier I know about it the better.

By the time the sauce is ready for the taste test I will have laid the table, set out drinks, put away the preparation utensils and started getting together the serving dishes and ladles and spoons and suchlike. There’s a variant of the mise-en-place at this point, when you get to do visual checks on the empty serving dishes. Parmesan? Check. Pasta? Check. Salad? Check. Kevin? Kevin!

Yes, cooking like this can be edifying, uplifting, sometimes even cathartic.

But it’s not just about cooking. I found myself doing something very similar when I went travelling. I would lay out the things I needed, first in a list, then in a visual presentation, then get going. Flying out early tomorrow morning? Pack and get clothes out tonight. That sort of thing.

There’s something about this whole discipline that I like thinking about when it comes to getting things done. The overall population of tasks. What’s mandatory, what’s optional. The relationships and proportions. Subgroups and dependencies. What you can vary and when, in what proportion. The effect it will have. The need to test regularly. The knowledge of how to act on the feedback. The minimum time. The maximum time. The optimal time.

What mise en place does for me is to remind me about the power of the senses in all this. How sight and sound and smell and touch help me. And what that means in the context of things other than cooking. The “muscle memory” of getting things done. The synaesthetic aspects, the sanity checks, the smell tests, all of which come from practice and observation and learning.

The principal reason I cook is because I enjoy cooking. And eating. And serving others what I’ve prepared.

But there are other things I learn at the same time. Which makes it all so pleasurable.

There’s something happening here

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth

People keep telling me Twitter is dead. And yet.

When I woke up this morning I saw that a number of friends had DMed me overnight. That in itself was not unusual. What was unusual was that a handful of them had pointed me to a particular conversation that was happening on twitter:

 

There’s something happening here.

I’d never heard of Pookleblinky before today.

And I’m very glad that some of my friends bothered to point me towards this conversation.

For all this to have happened, a few things had to be true. I had to be connected to people who knew my interests. I had to be connected to people who had the time and inclination to tell me when something that would interest me surfaced somewhere. There had to be a “somewhere” where conversations like the one started by Pookleblinky could be formed, shared, expanded.

There are many social networks. There are many places where such conversations take place, where many people can participate in those conversations, and where the conversations can be shared. There are better and better tools to be used to find and to recommend such conversations.

But.

What happened overnight has an elegance and a simplicity that will endure.

When I want bursty single-topic conversations with meaningful contribution by a decent cross-section of people, unpolluted by off-topic rants,  and often embedded with links to “long” or TL;DR material (for those interested in delving into a topic) Twitter remains the place to go to.

There’s still something happening here.

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

 

 

 

Thinking about cooking and about getting things done

I love cooking.

One of my signature dishes is “spag bol“. Except the pasta I use is not spaghetti. And the sauce I make is not what most people would consider to be bolognese. Think of it as the Trigger’s Broom of cooking.

If I wanted to be precise I would call the  dish gramigna alla salsiccia. Years ago I spent time in Bologna, asking to be served ragu in maybe a dozen restaurants. Most of them served me  gramigna alla salsiccia. And what was good enough for the people of Bologna was good enough for me.

The experience of spending that time in Bologna opened my eyes to looking more carefully at how the meat sauce and the pasta differed by region, and for that matter why they differed. The more time I spent investigating the sauces and the pastas, the more fascinated I became by the whole thing.

I guess it was only a matter of time before I had to try and build a model for myself, one that spanned across the regions, one that represented at the very least a crude abstraction of all that was involved. Trying to do that made me think, not just about cooking the dish, but about the relevance of the process to other things I think about.

The first is about the time taken to do anything.

Visiting the kitchens of the restaurants in Bologna, talking to the chefs, I learnt that there was quite some flexibility in the time taken to cook the ragu. Most recommended at least four hours; some said eight if possible. At least one suggested I start the previous night, and let it simmer all night. For dinner the next day. But all of them agreed that the very minimum was around 45 minutes, and that too only if pushed; their preferred minimum was two hours.

45 minutes. 8 hours or even overnight. Quite a range.

I grew up in a family whose livelihood was journalism. It didn’t matter what was done, or not done, during the week; what mattered was that the issue had rolled off the presses in time to be franked for posting in the early hours of Saturday, around 4am. That was the deadline. No excuses.

Most things we do have a “maximum time”, a time by which something has to be done.

John Seely Brown, someone I have great respect and fondness for, said something very relevant to this debate many years ago. How long does it take for a four-year-old to become a five-year-old? One year.

Many things we do also have a “minimum time”, a time before which something can’t be done.

When I’m cooking the ragu, I need to know both these times, the minimum as well as the maximum. Once I know these, I can approach the rest of the job with confidence.

Whatever the job, you then have to lay the foundations in order to do it well. For ragu this consists of preparing the odori and the battuto so as to make the soffrito. The things that provide the aroma (the odori) combined with the things that are beaten up (the battuto) that are then “underfried” (the soffrito) in olive oil, until translucent, to form the base. Here, a little practice helps. Onions, garlic, shallots, fennel, parsley, basil, and bay leaf can give the aroma, while carrots and celery get used to regulate the flavour, the “sweetness”. You don’t have to use all the odori; but you should have the carrots and the celery chopped fine. Most people use a simple rule of thumb: the chopped onions are about as much as the celery and the carrots taken together.

Whatever the dish, whatever the job, it’s worth knowing the choices you have in building the foundations, why you have them, how to combine them, how to test them, how to use the feedback to refine the output, as many times as needed. Iteration is important even for the foundations.

Then you come to the meat. For this dish it’s sausage meat, the salsiccia. If you can’t be bothered to make the salsiccia the hard way, and if you can’t get salsiccia easily, then a 1:1 ratio of beef mince to pork mince will suffice. If pork is not your thing then substitute lamb. If meat is not your thing then making a meat sauce is probably not your thing either, though in theory you could use alternative sources of protein. But I’ve never tried that for a ragu.

It’s important at this stage to “seal” the meat, even though it’s minced. Ed Yourdon will probably call it high cohesion and loose coupling. David Weinberger will probably say “small pieces loosely joined”. They’d both be right. Sealing the meat ensures it doesn’t crumble into goop. The soft slightly oily translucent foundation helps with that sealing process and imparts additional flavour and aroma. Gently.

Once the meat is sealed, there’s a decision to make. Are you going red or gold? I was quite surprised to see that the ragu I was served in Bologna was usually golden in colour, a gold flecked with brown, rather than the red of the meat sauces I was used to. That was because the gramigna alla salsiccia route was based on white wine, the slightest whiff of chopped tomato, and optionally even some milk or cream; whereas the classic red ragu route was based on red wine and a more generous helping of the chopped tomato and tomato paste. You can’t go the red route and then add milk or cream.

I usually go gold. Once I had my first gramigna alla salsiccia I was hooked. No going back.

Some people add a few more herbs along with the wine, but there are many who prefer that all the herbs come at the foundation stage. I’m with the majority on that.

A good knowledge of the minimum and maximum time. Solid awareness of the ingredients, their roles,  and their relationships to each other. Real understanding of the options and when they come into play. Some interventions to refine the taste and flavour, based on active feedback. And patience to see the job through.

All the chefs I’ve seen in operation taste vigorously. Make a point of smelling the aroma regularly. Test the consistency and texture as often as possible.

Iteration. Active feedback loops. Knowing when and how to intervene. Always with an eye on the outcome.

That’s cooking.

Sometimes it’s also how you get things done.

In a perverse kind of way, I think of slow food as “agile” and fast food as “waterfall”. When I cook slow, I iterate, I learn, I react. And I keep doing that. When I see fast food being prepared, it’s about one way of doing things from start to finish, with standardised monitoring and alerts but no iteration.

I know what I prefer.