I read the news today oh boy

 

 

 

 

I read the news today oh boy.

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Last week I took my family to the Royal Albert Hall to see the latest Cirque de Soleil, Kooza. A great evening’s entertainment in one of my favourite venues. I would go back and see the show again just for the “Wheel of Death”. Stunning.

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Over the years I’ve seen many wonderful acts there, each visit was special in its own right. And yet every time I went there, as I entered the place, a part of me went somewhere else in time. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. And all the verses in between.

It’s a fabulous song. Perhaps I should say it’s a fabulous two-songs-song, since it represents the merger of two completely independent sections. For people like me, part of the attraction of the song is the story behind it. The stories behind it. Here are two of them:

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The tragedy of Tara Browne’s fatal car crash, as reported in the Daily Mail in December 1966, was apparently the trigger to Lennon’s writing the first half; the report on “The holes in our roads” a few weeks later, also in the Mail, gave rise to the memorable line. Over the years, we’ve learnt bits and bobs about the details behind the song: the triggers and catalysts, the “muses”, the independent parts, the way they were brought together, the engineering behind it, how the alarm clock wandered in and stayed. if you want to know more about the song, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

Some of you know I collect books. I’m a very oddball collector, with some very narrow collecting habits. For example, I have hundreds of Don Quixote items, ranging from many many different editions of the book, figures and figurines, buttons, medals, pens and writing materials, illustrations, buttons, plates, bookends, tables and t-shirts. I’m fascinated by how illustrators over the past 400 years chose to interpret the character, and that’s what led me to start the collection: one of my wife’s ancestors illustrated a 19th century Scandinavian edition of the book.

As with songs, part of my fascination with books are the stories behind the books. What made someone write the book; the context of the book; contemporary reactions; changes in reactions through the ages.

That fascination shows up in many different ways: I collect “association” copies of books, usually unusually autographed or annotated, often forming part of unusual collections in their own right. So for example here are two different copies of the same book:

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We live in an age where not everyone knows who the Beatles were. So names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Dwarkanath Chatterjee, Julian Huxley may not mean much to everyone. But they mean a lot to me. And they will mean a lot to some people in time to come, people who care not just about the book but about the stories behind the book. When the book is physical, these stories take dimensions other than just the narrative in them or the impetus before them.

So I have Kerouac’s copy of Gulliver. And Pirsig’s copy of Kerouac. And a book signed by Burroughs sitting alongside a machine made by the company his father founded, a company I once worked for. Books signed by people to people everyone knows. And books signed by people to people nobody knows.

Stories. Stories about stories. Stories about people and stories. Kindle, eat your heart out.

I read the news today oh boy. Talking about reading the news, I’m still getting used to how the news comes to me now. News, like peace, comes like a river to me.

A newspaper of the fish-wrapping kind proved to be a song-catalyst for Lennon. One of that ilk floated this story past me recently:

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I’m hoping that the headline turns out to be wrong in a strange way. The underlying data, taken from 2014 UCAS acceptances as reported in the Times, suggested that men outnumbered women substantially in engineering and computer sciences; and women redressed the balance when it came to social studies, creative arts and education. Web Science is all about bringing those disciplines together into a functional and meaningful whole, thereby rendering the headline irrelevant. Perhaps I will ask Dame Wendy Hall and the rest of the Trustees of the Web Science Trust to opine on this. [I’m one of them, so I’m biased. This world needs Web Science, and in a way that diversity of many forms is protected and cherished, beginning with gender].

In other news, coming to me via a friend on twitter:

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Fascinating. Perhaps there’s something in it for all those who fear AI growing unchecked and untrammelled. “Conquer” the machines by creating an addiction, a dependency, one that only their masters can supply them.

The first time the phrase “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you” was uttered, it was a momentous occasion. Perhaps in time to come we will be commanding other Mr Watsons in more imperious ways. [I remember coming across a story that the reason why Bell called Watson was because he’d done himself an injury, as if the first words ever spoken on a telephone were accidental. But I can’t remember where I saw it or whether it was true. So I’ll leave it for now and hope that someone reading this will illuminate me].

From twitter to Facebook, which is where I came across this, shared by a friend:

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

of smell tests and sanity checks: a weekend wander

The last time I had a cup of coffee was sometime in 2007 or 2008. I was with Om Malik, in a coffee shop in Mission (somewhere near 16th and Guerrero) in San Francisco. The place didn’t serve anything except coffee and water. And I’d already drunk enough water that day, so I tried a decaf. It was wonderful.

But it made my head spin; I hadn’t had any coffee since sometime in 2006, and erred in thinking that I could get away with decaf.  I haven’t had a cup of coffee since. Despite years of having double-digit cups daily.

I still drink a lot of tea though, tempering my wish for black with green as well as white. I’m of South Indian origin and brought up in Calcutta: both tea as well as coffee are mother’s milk to people like me. Since I was 7, all of fifty years ago.

And so it came as a surprise to me just how finicky I had become about my tea and coffee. A cup had to be just so. White on the inside if it’s china. Shiny if it’s a stainless steel tumbler. Or matt earth brown if it was a matka.

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The colour of the inside mattered to me for a reason: it helped me figure out how much milk to add. I was always an add-milk-to-tea person, unable to understand the add-tea-to-milk brigade. Even though I stopped adding milk in 2006, my finickiness to do with the cup or mug remained.

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The smell of tea mattered as well. If I wanted a dhaba chai, I would only go to the places where the tea (and milk) smelt right. My favourite used to be the taxi-driver dhaba near PG Hospital in Calcutta.

For much of what I enjoyed eating or drinking, texture mattered a lot. There were many foods I couldn’t countenance unless they were al-dente or cooked to a crisp. Especially anything to do with brinjal. Yet, thirty years later, I found myself adoring babaghanoush, which was anything but crisp or al-dente. I had similar reservations about black pudding: adorable when crisp, inedible when soft and crumbly.

The influence of presentation and colour and smell and texture in flavour and taste is not a new thing, mankind has known about it for centuries. Sensory-alteration experiments like eating in the dark have become commonplace since 1999; I suspect they’ve been going on for hundreds of years.

Nowadays, especially since the advent of the molecular gastronomist, we’re getting more and more used to the roles played by our senses in perceiving flavour.

Since about 2008, I’ve been coming across some studies on the role of sound in our perceptions of taste and flavour. In fact institutions like the Crossmodal Research Laboratory actually

“study the integration of information across the various sensory modalities (hearing, vision, touch, taste and smell)”

Now that fascinated me. Ever since I saw Short Circuit in 1986, and watched Number 5 in action, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of information-as-food. By the time I had absorbed the basics of Kleiber’s Law (on metabolic rate and its relation to mass), understood something of what people like Leslie Aiello meant by the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis and begun to appreciate what people like Richard Wrangham were saying, I was very taken with the information-as-food hypothesis.

Which is why I found myself giving this TED talk some years ago.

The idea that we experience information through all our senses, in an integrated way, is something that should not surprise any of us. Yet, given my peculiar biases, anchors and frames, I was spellbound. And have been spellbound since.

The first touch tablet I played with was not an iPad. It was something called a Tantus, if I remember right, and was used by bookmakers in the mid-80s. The firm I was working for wanted to know if we could convert them for the dealing room. But the touch technology wasn’t quite up to it.

As central marketplaces, many of them open outcry “pits”, disaggregated and morphed into trading/dealing rooms distributed across the participant base, it was not unusual for traders to lament the loss of the “buzz”, the sounds and smells and sense of crowdedness that permeated the pits. [When the markets went quiet after the crashes of 2001 and 2002, I remember discussing, mainly with Sean Park and Andrew Pisker, whether we should look at “piping in” the sound of busy markets on to the dealing floor].

With the slow demise of the keyboard, something magical is happening. We’re beginning to use all our senses to deal with information again, a significant renaissance. Touch and sound and gesture are all being brought more into play. Despite the withdrawal of Google Glass, the idea of wearables (and even embeddeds) isn’t a fad. We will engage with information in multifarious ways, in ways we cannot necessarily even imagine today. We’re so used to living in a world of text, that the mere possibility of its moving off centre stage as the primary way we engage with information, is not something we’re comfortable with.

Our very understanding of synaesthesia will change and grow, on the coattails of research in places like the Crossmodal Research Laboratory. The way we think of information will change as a result, how we engage with information, how we view information, how we respond to information, even how we create and store information.

Which is why I spend time looking a whole slew of things:  how plants talk and interact, how the information in DNA is decoded by transcription, how blockchains can help reduce transaction costs, particularly contracting costs.

Which is why I came across cymatics some years ago, and why, just a day or two ago, I spent time watching this New Zealand New Age musician:

A Change is Gonna Come. Which gives me a reason to end this post with Sam Cooke. 

A Saturday slalom through several strands

A few days ago, someone whose judgment I trust sent me a link to an Atlantic article. Since then many more have pointed me towards Ian Bogost’s piece, and I would strongly recommend you read it.

There are a number of points made by Ian, and it’s best you read them yourself. It deserves not to be summarised.

Any good article, book, work of art,  film, piece of music, makes one think. So it was with this article. The human tendency to conflate items linked by “metaphor” — our ability to imbue the “tenor” with all the attributes of the “vehicle” —  is something that has always puzzled me. When one considers the transient, temporal nature of what we use as metaphor, it puzzles me further, particularly in the algorithm-strewn world that he describes, partly related to what Eli Pariser covers in The Filter Bubble, and also partly to what Kevin Slavin covers in How Algorithms Shape Our World.

I must have been in my early teens when I first heard the phrase “seeing a reflection of the moon in the water and believing it to be the sun.” The person who said that to me said it in a zen-koan sort of way; later that day I mentioned it in passing in conversation with my father, and it set him off on one of his favourite topics. The only truth in a financial statement is the cash position. Everything else is some form of conventional representation.

It’s something that’s guided me ever since. As a young man, every time I looked at a car dashboard, I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t necessarily seeing the speed of the car or the amount of fuel remaining, just some representation of it: a representation that had capacity for error.

When it became fashionable for everything to have a dashboard, that safety-net of scepticism remained with me. As we entered an era where large organisations “spoke” in the language of “decks”, when Powerpoint and Excel began to rule, that scepticism grew more intensely.

The only truth in a financial statement is the cash position.

Let me give you an example of conflation truth and “conventional representation” in an unlikely context. DRS. The Umpire Decision Review System in cricket. The Indian team are notorious for refusing to support the system; I have much sympathy with their view. This, despite seeing the team disadvantaged by their stance on the subject, and despite a sense that they’ve not articulated their reasons well.

My disquiet began with a different sport. Tennis. And the use of tools like Hawk-Eye. A system that could “display a record of [the ball’s] statistically most likely path as a moving image.”

A-ha. A “statistically most likely path“. Not the path the ball actually took.

On the rare occasion I watch sport at home (usually at home and at unearthly hours), I tend to use the technique of rewind-then-replay-slowly whenever I wanted to review an incident. And when I do this, what I watch is a replay of the actual incident. Not a conventional representation, although the pedant will point out that even the images delivered to me were technically nothing more than conventional representations themselves.

The point is this: when we watch action-replays of activities like tennis where tools like Hawk-Eye are used, the “images” we see are driven by statistical models. That’s why we only see what appears to be the shadow of a ball against an artificial backdrop, rather than the actual movement of the ball itself.

I think that’s what perturbs the Indian cricketers. They don’t feel that the data underlying the projection models for ball flight and pitch behaviour reflect Indian spinners and conditions satisfactorily. In essence they think that the umpire is less likely to get it wrong. Time will tell whether they chose the “system” less prone to error, umpire or Hawk-Eye. Tendulkar suffered repeatedly in one of his last tours, where umpire was weaker than system. Rahane seemed to have a similar experience in the recently-concluded Test series in Australia. But I still think they’re right to question DRS in its current Hawk-Eye-only implementation.

I’m probably being heavily influenced by what I’m reading right now. Serendipitously, my current set includes:

  • The Order of Things: Michel Foucault
  • The Future Of The Past: Alexander Stille
  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America: Kenneth C Davis
  • Program or Be Programmed: Douglas Rushkoff

We live in an age where we use drones to kill people far far away; not that far removed from people being rightsized-by-spreadsheet, once you consider what’s truth and what could be sometimes erroneous, representation.

We live in an age where the Big-Endians of the CD world (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) now have to argue with the Little-Endians of the PonoMusic world (24 bit, 192 kHz) about their various Blefuscudian issues.

We live in an age of increasing automation, with concerns about how long it would be before the robots make us extinct. [An aside: I will know the robots are winning when, perversely, I see one lose. In a court of law. And be made to pay over money or transfer assets. That belong to no one but the robot.]

I’m still of the old-fashioned view that all technology is at the service of mankind; I guess, if pushed to answer, that I still believe in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. For me, even when algorithms go wrong, there’s a human for someone to sue somewhere.

And so to my coda. Jerry’s Brain. Yes, of course it’s an artificial, conventional representation of something very human. I know Jerry, and he is a wonderful man. I’ve been intrigued by his brain for many years, and had the privilege to attend some of his fabulous Retreats. For some time now I’ve been exposed to his Brain, an extreme example of “conventional representation”. Fascinating, intriguing, a complex collection of links and connections and information. His Brain. Not his brain.

I’ve enjoyed visiting Jerry’s Brain. Now you can, too. It’s available in iTunes. It may also be available for Android, I confess I haven’t checked. When was the last time you entered someone else’s head?

New Clues: Calling on everyone to be Dutiful Individuals

 

 

 

 

I’ve already written about my reaction to New Clues, the latest instalment from Cluetrain authors Doc Searls and David Weinberger; this serves more as a postscript than as anything else.

Perhaps it was always there in all of Cluetrain. My sense is that it was. But one thing’s for sure, when I read New Clues I felt there was a lot of “we” about it, an “us” about it. Not a “me”, and not an”i”. We. Us. The call to action was to a collective.

I’ve been fascinated by aspects of me-ness and we-ness ever since I was a teenager. The Calcutta I grew up in was for many years a democratically-elected communist state, make of that what you will. The India I grew up in was described in terms like “secular” and “non-aligned” and sometimes even “socialist”. Our 5-year Plans were modelled on Russian examples; while there was an amicable relationship with the UK, with the US and with NATO in general, terms like “bhai-bhai” were used to describe our relationships with Russia and China. We were a democracy then and I hope we still are; but we were also a socialist republic at the same time.

It was a land that celebrated me-ness and we-ness. If push came to shove, the we-ness tended to win. I’m sure it’s common in other cultures, but my personal experience was that everything to do with my identity, with who I was or am or will be, was communal in nature. I was defined more by my context and my relationships than by anything peculiarly “me” about me.

The bureaucracy at the heart of India — the Indian Administrative Service — was a we-ness. The alumnus effect of the IAS would put Western organisations like Accenture and McKinsey or Harvard and Stanford to shame. I chose those four deliberately, given their perceived excellence in managing alumnus effects. The IAS did what an Accenture or a McKinsey did at scale, but that’s not what makes them legendary. The IAS somehow managed to make these effects happen despite the grade structure that is the DNA of most bureaucracies.

Industry was a we-ness. They were either nationalised, in which case they adopted a weaker, less effective IAS-like model; or they were private, in which case they were often run by industrial groups with very strong family links at the senior layers.

There were unions everywhere. Particularly in Bengal. The sounds of Aamader Dabi Mantey Hobey rang out every day in Calcutta streets; I guess the translation today would be something like “Our demands must be met”. They were militant, rampant, as militant and rampant as anything could be in Bengal, especially in summer. There was a reason why Noel Coward said, in Mad Dogs and Englishmen: In Bengal to move at all is seldom ever done.

The power of collective action was well understood in India. And the democratic socialist republic knew how to exercise it: nothing else can explain how Congress lost the 1977 election to the fledgling Janata party, how Indira Gandhi lost her own seat, how the only party ever to have held power in India, led by the daughter of the first Prime Minister, could manage to lose an election where most of the opposition had spent most of the electioneering time in jail.

One of my favourite stories about the power of the collective comes from one of Nirmal Kumar Bose‘s books on his life with Gandhi.

Bose had been given the opportunity to interview the Mahatma on the 9th of November 1934, at Mahila Ashram. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his son Ghani were also there. They all went for a walk with Gandhiji that evening. The way the author describes it, Gandhiji could have walked for India at the Olympics. So he rattled off at a serious pace into the fields around the ashram, wearing his customary sandals. The rest of the party followed dutifully, roaming into the gloaming behind the Mahatma. After a little over a mile, he turned back.

And as he turned, he stopped to pick up a few stones. As did everyone else in the walking party. Who proceeded to carry said stones all the way back to the garden of the ashram. Why? Here’s what Bose says:

The fact was, the Ashram was a little way off from the main metalled road, and one had to walk along a sticky, muddy path in the rains to reach it. Some engineer had been called, but his estimate had been too high for the Ashram. So Gandhiji had proceeded in his own direct manner to deal with the problem of road-building. He had promised to collect all necessary road-metal in the course of a few months and this, he expected, would reduce the cost of the road to a considerable extent. Thus, every morning and evening’s walk was meant not only for keeping the inmates of the Ashram fit, but it was also to add to the “wealth” of the establishment in a very different way.

The author goes on:

In Gandhi’s opinion, there seemed to be no problem, however great, in whose solution the smallest individual could not contribute his mite. Indeed, he had the genius of discovering individual solutions in the most ingenious ways. His idea was, if we could multiply the number of dutiful individuals by many, that would lead to the solution of a problem, however massive it might appear at first sight to be.

When I think of the internet, when I think of the web, I am reminded of this passage by Bose about Gandhi. The pioneers of the internet and of the web kept building and evolving a philosophy, some principles, a set of agreements, ways of doing things, that carried this hallmark — the smallest individual could contribute his mite.

New Clues is there to tell us three things:

The context has evolved in scale and scope, but the conversations that started with Cluetrain continue today and will continue tomorrow

There is a philosophical battle, and that battle is deep in Then-They-Fight-Us territory.

And then we will win. But to win, as in the story of the roads at Mahila Ashram, we need to be dutiful individuals contributing our mites.

The Clues are there to help us understand what being dutiful means, and where we need to be contributing our mites.

And then we win

 

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The Cluetrain continues to roll. Two of the original authors, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, have set out some New Clues.

If you want to tune in (or for that matter, if you want to turn on or drop out) the Gillmor Gang piece in TechCrunch is a good place to start. Dave Winer’s got a listicle going. Kevin Marks has reposted the Clues. There’s a whole lotta forking going on. Conversations sprouting everywhere.

If you haven’t been on the Cluetrain, now’s a good time. You can get to the whole of the original book for free, so there’s no excuse. But then I’m biased. Privileged to call these guys my friends.

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The conversation that Cluetrain started all those years ago is one that has continued. The music never stopped. Neither did our power to connect, participate or share in the independence of cyberspace.

When I was reading the new clues, my first reaction was Gandhian. Or maybe it was Nicholas-Kleinian. Who may have said. In 1914. Or maybe even 1916. Or maybe it was  1918.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that our ability to check the facts is continuing to improve. What matters is that our ability to converse with each other about the facts, and to share our opinions about those facts, has improved. What matters is that those abilities are now available to more and more people, and critically at a time when such abilities are more and more needed.

Internet users have grown by at least an order of magnitude in the time elapsed between the first Cluetrain and New Clues. [Thank you Mary Meeker, thank you Internet World Stats].

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The quantum of data on the web (and here I make no assertion as to the quality or reliability or usability of that data) has also grown exponentially, and continues to grow:

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As Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law have continued their march, the number of conversations has also grown out of all proportion: this, from Cairbre Sugrue, is a telling chart.

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More connected people. More shared data. More open data. More ways to converse. More ways to challenge.

More ways that we can create and share learning and experience and joy and sadness.

The way I look at things now, Cluetrain was written during a First-They-Ignore-You time. The years since were initially Then-They-Laugh-At-You.

I think New Clues has been written because we’re now in the midst of Then-They-Fight-You. There’s a clear call to action. A call for all of us. A call we’ve been hearing for a while, to do with DMCA and DRM and region-coding and patent trolls and net neutrality and SOPA and PIPA and lock-ins and walled gardens.

Then they fight you. Actually it’s better to say “Then they fight us“. The “us” is important, because that’s the heart of this indescribable thing that is the internet and the web.

It’s an us thing. Not an Us thing. Or even an US thing. It’s an us thing. An us that is to be found in the hearts and minds of those who built the infrastructure that makes it all possible. [In this context, besides Cluetrain, I’ve found the conversations facilitated by people like David Isenberg and Gordon Cook invaluable; similarly, the writings of people like Bob Frankston on ambient connectivity and Sheldon Renan on netness continue to shape and inspire my thoughts on the subject. People like Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold, Cory Doctorow continue to help me understand the value of community and of the ways in which people learn and share and build things that last.

Then they fight us. It’s a war. And yes, like any other war, this war has correspondents risking limb, and sometimes even life, to ensure that the rest of us have a clue. If you want to follow this particular war, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Boing Boing are good places to start.

Then they fight us. There is no longer any need to debate the value generated by the internet and the web. At least once every six months, I go and watch this conversation between Tim Berners-Lee and Tim O’Reilly to remind me about all this.

Then they fight us. The internet, while not a series of tubes, is many things, a state of mind, a worldview, a philosophy. Philosophical battles can get Blefuscudian, so it’s important to understand the facts rather than just concentrate on the emotion. Which is why we should all try and support the work of the Web Science Trust and of the Computer History Museum, as they strive to preserve our understanding of where all this comes from and where all this is headed. [Disclaimer: That’s why I try and serve as a trustee at both those institutions].

Then they fight us. In some ways, the philosophical battle we face is one that pits the individual against the collective, and our current wailing and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth on subjects like internet governance and intellectual property and identity and privacy are all consequences of this battle. These are not simple battles and we’ve only just begun. There’s still a lot of theatre in this theatre of war, and we need to move on, as Bruce Schneier continues to remind us.

Then they fight us. Some of the benefits that accrue from ubiquitous and affordable connectivity and the consequent power to collaborate and share at scale can appear asymmetrical: gains are perceived at a collective and “society” level, while harms are perceived at an individual and “person” level. It is against this backdrop that the marauders and fools referred to in New Clues operate, and  that’s what makes it possible to entice and delude the Us referred to by the authors.

New Clues is a timely reminder of the transition taking place from Then-They-Ridicule-Us to Then-They-Fight-Us.

What Doc and David are doing is reminding us that we have a role to play in making sure the next phase goes as intended.

And then we win.