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.










Oh frabjous day


Today may turn out to be a very important day in the world of Test cricket. Regular readers will know that I am no fan of the Decision Review System (DRS). While I’m all for sensible use of technology in sport, I cannot abide the way “Umpire’s Call” is designed to work. It’s an abomination.

Until today, I couldn’t see a simple way out. DRS was here to stay, and with it the Umpire’s Call, or so it seemed. A constant threat, with the ability to mar, to scar, what would otherwise have been an enjoyable day’s cricket.

Today all that changed at Dharamsala, during the Fourth (and deciding) Test between India and Australia. It couldn’t have happened in a nicer place.


Australia won the toss and elected to bat. They were bowled out for precisely 300 in 88.3 overs. India faced just one over, ending the day at 0 for 0.

A full day’s play. A decent over rate. A decent run rate. 10 wickets. 300 runs. A fabulous century by one of the finest cricketers plying his trade at present. A glorious debut by a young spinner. An enthralling contest. A splendid time is guaranteed for all. Being for the benefit of all and sundry, not just Mr Kite.

And not a single review. Australia did not review any of the ten wickets they lost. India didn’t have anything to review; I can remember one instance when Bhuvaneswar Kumar thought about it, but decided against it.

There was a dearth of spurious appeals. At least that’s the way it looked to me, watching from thousands of miles away.

The batsmen all walked. Something deep in the spirit of the game, something that’s been eroding of late. [I still cringe at the memory of what Stuart Broad did. Not walking was sin enough. Not walking because the fielding side “had no reviews left”, that called for the cricketing equivalent of bell, book and candle.]

None of the batsmen was given out LBW, in a full day’s cricket, with ten wickets falling. This too on the subcontinent, with a bunch of spinners doing their bit for God and country. Unheard-of.

That’s surely a record in times of DRS, and may have been quite rare even before that.

Bowling negatively, staying well outside the off stump, trying to bore the daylights out of batsmen and spectators, wishing and willing them to lose patience and hang their bat out; slowing the over rate down to abysmal levels; using every trick in the book (and often ones not in the book) to rough up one side of the ball and to shine the other; appealing whimsically, irrelevantly and even irritatingly; running on to the pitch while bowling in the fourth innings; all this and more; there is much that despoils the game, brings it into disrepute.

Today was a welcome break from all that nonsense.

For that, I have to thank the two teams and the officials. Whatever the result, they’ve given us the example of a whole day’s cricket the way it should be played.

And it came with a bonus. How do you avoid the abomination of DRS? Get the batsmen out unambiguously, unequivocally, without the need for an LBW decision.

There’s hope yet for cricket, particularly Test cricket.




Another unGoogleable question

Note: I have posted unGoogleable questions before. Hence the “Another”.

I’ve posted links to seven songs below. In a particular sequence. The sequence matters. There is a link between each song and the song that follows it; those links are broken if the sequence is changed. I have not been able to continue the sequence, though it might be possible. Can you continue the sequence, or at least spot what chains one song to the next?

Give it a try. At worst you may discover some music you like that you haven’t heard before.







Tumbleweed connections

I must have been 13, maybe 14. In Calcutta. I’d never lived anywhere else, something that wouldn’t change for a decade or so. I was sitting in a friend’s house, listening to a “new” album by someone whose music I’d only recently discovered. Elton John. The new album was called Tumbleweed Connection. The song I was listening to was Where To Now, St Peter?


Until then, all I’d heard of Elton John was a couple of songs from his second, eponymous, album. I don’t think I’d ever seen an Elton John album until that day. [In India, those days, the way you listened to modern music was on the radio. Then, slowly, cassette tapes of new albums would permeate their way in to the country, albums left strewn around as visiting hippies traded their possessions in order to find themselves. Occasionally a diplomat or a multinational executive would head back home, and those in the know would rush for the bargains as they sold the possessions they no longer wanted. Some time later, the Gramophone Company of India would step in and release the album locally.

So I hadn’t seen an Elton John album until I saw the Katyals’ copy of Tumbleweed.

I’d never seen a tumbleweed either. And it wasn’t as if there was an internet for me to go to in order to find out. I could (and did) look up the dictionary. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, to be precise. And I was told “A type of plant that snaps off above the root, curls into a ball, and rolls about in the wind”. That’s what it said. Intriguing, but I still had no idea what a tumbleweed was. Maybe it was something the hippies wanted. Give me some tumbleweed. Hold the tumble.

Then, not long later, I found myself with a copy of James Taylor’s fabulous Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Suitably bashed and scratched, having made its way round Sudder St and Kyd St and Free School St, meaningful for those who remember the Calcutta of the time. We did something strange those days. We used to listen to whole albums. And so I heard Highway Song.


“… the one eyed seed of a tumbleweed in the belly of a rolling stone”. Now that really helped me understand what a tumbleweed was, didn’t it?

I was deep into discovering Laurel Canyon at the time, though I didn’t know it at the time. When you’re listening to a C90 BASF cassette with usually nothing more than a scribble of the album and artist name on the side, there isn’t a lot to go on. Track listings were a luxury; sometimes you had the actual album in your hands, but that didn’t mean you saw any liner notes. Far Eastern imports did away with all that stuff, you had paper-thin covers encased in even thinner polythene with blurred images of what passed for the album cover.

Where was I? Oh yes Laurel Canyon. The Mamas and the Papas. The Doors. Carole King. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, in their various permutations and combinations, solo, duo, trio and quarter. And of course Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell. I’d already heard Blue and I was hooked. Someone had a real copy of For The Roses and I managed to borrow it for a week. And I was in heaven.

There I was, quietly listening to the album. Wait a minute!  … but I know my needs/my sweet tumbleweed…. Here we go again. What was it with these people? First Elton John, then James Taylor, then Joni Mitchell. These tumbleweeds were beginning to follow me. [I didn’t know at the time that Joni had been dating James at some point then. Otherwise I may have thought that tumbleweed was something you could catch].

Things quietened down for a while after that, tumbleweed-wise. I had to wait till Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first “posthumous” album, Skynyrd’s First… And Last. I think it would have been their fifth. I didn’t even know that album existed until I came to the UK in 1980. But I found myself listening to it, and there it was again.

Like a restless leaf in the autumn breeze,
Once, I was a tumbleweed.
Like a rolling stone, cold and all alone,
Livin’ for the day my dream would come.


In classic truth-stranger-than-fiction style, the next time I would come across the word was when I was listening to someone who Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t think too much of, to put it mildly. Neil Young, with Don’t Cry.

Actually that’s not true. It was the next time I came across the word in lyrics of a song.

But something happened in between.

In 1984, I went to see a fabulous film by a guy called Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas. Brilliant. With Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, et al. Music by Ry Cooder. Unmissable. Check the trailer out.


Guess what. I saw my first tumbleweed. Now I finally knew what one looked like. More than a decade after coming across the world, having moved countries, continents.


That’s not a still from the film. It’s taken from a blog called Blue Mesa, more specifically from a post on …. tumbleweed racing.

Fast forward to this weekend. Since watching Paris, Texas, I’d visited the US for the first time, been to Texas for the first time, and even seen a tumbleweed IRL.

I was done with tumbleweeds. I’d heard about them, heard them in songs, read about them, seen them in movies and then seen one. I was done.

Until this weekend. Until I read this article, regurgitated somewhere in my feed, about the Mine Kafon.

Mine Kafon. Go visit the site, folks, and see what you can do to help.



“Tumbleweed” designed to spot landmines. What a brilliant idea.

Tumbleweed. Connections.

Thinking lazily about notifications and alerts: Part 3

[Note to readers: For those coming into this cold, I wrote Part 1 and Part 2 early in January; this one, Part 3, will be followed by a handful more in weeks to come].

I think of sensors this way: every piece of equipment capable of sensing something and sending me information about that something is in effect extending my own set of senses. A security camera outside the house extends my eyesight. If it is capable of night vision, it extends my ability to see. If it is linked to a network and allows me to “see” from afar, it allows me to sense remotely. If it has the capacity to retain what it sees and allows me to query it at a later date, it allows me to “see” into the past, to travel in time as well and in space.


Kevin Kelly (one of my favourite authors)

Sensors extend our natural senses. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is very much in keeping with Kevin Kelly’s assertion that technology speeds up evolution. [I love having a reason to re-read essays in his Technium. Something I would commend you do, it is well worth the while].

It’s not just about enhancing an existing sense or extending the sensing capacity over distance or over time. We are also on the threshold of “sensing” new things, things we could not sense before, things that haven’t existed for long. Nobody thinks twice about our current ability to “sense” (via satnav apps) the nearest ATM, the nearest fuel selling unit, the nearest electric car charging facility.

Yup, our smart devices, and their ecosystems of hardware extensions (sometimes as wearables) and software apps, they’re all part of our rapidly expanding sensory network. Some form of Extra Sensory Perception is now reality.

It doesn’t stop there. It’s now been a few years since I first read about how we’re bringing sensors closer to home, not just by wearing them or hanging them off our smart devices, but by implanting them. Cochlear implants that, while improving our sense of hearing, also throw in, for the heck of it, an ability to sniff out wifi signal and compass direction, just to give a few examples. I guess it will only be a matter of time before people gain “x-ray vision” or an ability to see through walls. Time to dust off that William Gibson mantra again. The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Some of our technology-enabled extra-sensory ability to solve time and distance issues have existed for a while. The security guard in a room somewhere looking at a wall of screens, checking for exceptions. The recording capacity attached to surveillance cameras. All ways to “sense” something and receive that sensing in a different place or at a different time.

Prior to that, the technology used to do the remote sensing was cruder. Mountain and Mahomet time. Since the remote place couldn’t come to you, you went to the remote place physically. Before video cameras, security guards used to do the rounds the old-fashioned way. Expensive, inefficient but reasonably effective. Most of you must have seen films set in the Second World War where prisoners of war escape only when the security guard is at the aphelion of his personal orbit vis-a-vis the would-be escapees.

We’ve seen this movie before. Before telephones we couldn’t speak over any real distance. Telephones conquered the distance problem, but not the time one. If the party you wished to speak to wasn’t there, tough. No tickee no washee. Then came a time when people took messages for you if you weren’t there. And left them by the phone, so you had to get to the phone to see them. Then came answerphones that looked like tape recorders, attached to the phone. The message taking facility had become a little more automated. Then you could query those messages remotely. And the capacity to hold messages increased rapidly. And then the message could call you.

That telephone-message movie is now playing out for pretty much every form of notification or alert there is.


Firehoses of notifications and alerts.

So they need filters before they can be rendered useful.

Notification Class 3, Houston We Have a Problem, is a filtering mechanism. Conditional, with thresholds that can be set in advance and changed at will. Some of you will be used to IFTTT, If This Then That. Houston We Have a Problem needs IFTTT for notifications, nothing more. You don’t want the firehose. You want to know only if some exception condition is met or breached. If the doorbell rings and the only person in the house is my aged aunt who doesn’t hear too well, then make the bell ring more loudly, or make a pre-agreed light fitting flash. You get my drift. Establish the threshold for something that can be sensed remotely, then establish the notification process that is triggered when the threshold is passed.

There is a lot more to be done with the notification process in such contexts, in terms of the devices alerted, the timing of the alerts, the route taken (sound, light, movement, etc), whether the alert is persisted for later inspection, whether time series of the alerts are themselves persisted, whether there is a need for acknowledgement of the notification (and that’s a notification in itself).

Imagine the drudgery of building maintenance and you can see just how efficient it can become. No need to inspect the bulbs, batteries, toilets, rubbish chutes, whatever. Remote sensors will tell you when a threshold condition is breached. Maintenance by exception.

Enough on Class 3 for now. The next class of notification is I Am Here. The best way to think of this one is as the answer to the question “Dude, Where’s My Stuff?”. There’s a lot of motion in life, lots of stuff moving around. And people want to know about the state of that thing in motion. Are you on the train, on your way home yet? Did you get my letter? Where’s the dress I ordered? Where’s Kevin? Where’s Wally? Did you get my cheque? (No, not the one’s that’s “in the post”, along with Billy Bunter’s Postal Order or the homework that the dog ate).

Fundamentally, I Am Here signals the current position of something in motion. The requester of the notification wants to know that Elvis has Left the Building. That the Package Has Arrived. That the Train has Passed Clapham Junction. Whatever.

So many notifications, so little time. Filters needed. We need to be able to subscribe to the notifications sensibly, so there’s a pub-sub approach needed. We need to have some way of signalling conditional routing, not just about the thresholds to be tested against, but also the routes taken by the notification, the timing of the notifications, and the devices to which the notifications will be sent.

That’s enough on I Am Here for now. I will deal with further classes of notification, and start building on the subscription models and threshold conditions in later posts.