thinking about tolerance and opinion polls




Some years ago I wrote a few posts about the “adda” in Calcutta. Since then the term has a Wikipedia entry; there’s been an award-winning film made about the phenomenon (which you can watch here in its entirety, worth it for the music alone):

Even the New York Times covered the topic earlier this year: The Chattering Masses.

I loved addas. One of the reasons I loved them was that dissent was not just acceptable but often expected. There was a tolerance for different points of view, and we all learnt as a result.

We should never seek to prevent dissenting voices. It’s like taking painkillers that deal with the symptom of the pain and not the root cause: the dissent doesn’t go away, just its visibility.

Over a decade ago, we started experimenting with blogs and wikis where I worked; everyone was encouraged to participate. Soon after we began, thorny questions emerged about the way sales were credited and commissions paid. I was contacted by the powers-that-be to suppress the comments and to “have a word” with the questioners. I let the questions ride, educating the would-be objectors on the folly of driving dissent underground.

Today we live in a world of polarisation on many topics; politicians seek to engineer perennial re-election by gerrymandering us into returning districts and constituencies that are homogeneous, uncaring that they create Fergusons in their wake.

That polarisation creates extremes of behaviour, as far removed from the tolerance I was used to in Calcutta as is humanly possibly. If we look at the Obama re-election, the Scottish referendum and the recent UK general election there are some intriguing common elements:

  • the media and the pollsters kept describing the election as “too close to call”
  • at least one side of the argument took to violence in speech and sometimes in action: strong derogatory words and phrases were used, slogans daubed, missiles thrown; it became socially impossible to be seen as taking the other side
  • the result was something that “no one expected”

Pfui. As Nero Wolfe would have said.

Actually there were people who expected it. People like Nate Silver, trained to look at the facts holistically and in their entirety. Not emotion but data.

Why did most of the pollsters get it wrong? Because they didn’t allow for the driving of dissent underground. They didn’t allow for the effect of the screams and the bullying, the intolerance of at least one side.

Never drive dissent underground. The dissent doesn’t actually go away, it just disappears from view and becomes more powerful.


Why you should read Peers Inc



Photo (and associated recipe) courtesy


I used to be a vegetarian.

Growing up in a Brahmin Hindu household in Calcutta, that meant potatoes and chapatis and daal and dahi (thayir) as my staple meal. Of course I had rasam and sambar with rice; of course I had mixed-vegetable delicacies like avial; and occasionally I would even cheat and include breakfast or tiffin dishes like idli and dosai and upma. And chillies. Chillies with everything. Lots of chillies.

I was in heaven.

One day, around 45 years ago, at a friend’s birthday party, all that changed. I had the most wonderful vegetable samosa. Turned out there was a reason why I found it that wonderful. It wasn’t vegetarian. I loved it. And so I began my sojourn as an omnivore. With chillies, of course.

I was in heaven.

Today, it looks very likely that I will become a vegetarian again. Not for reasons of spiritual belief or taste or health or personal affordability. It’s for an altogether different, serious reason.


Fresh water.

In common with those of you over fifty, I’ve thought more about my diet and nutrition for the past decade or so. Much of what I’ve been reading tends to reinforce the Michael Pollan mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

Also in common with many of you, I’ve been concerned about climate change and what I should do about it, how to deal with my personal and petty hypocrisies in that context as an inhabitant of this earth. Which is how I landed up reading about sustainable nutrition, starting with Jonathan Safran Foer’s lesser-known book Eating Animals.

I was travelling back from San Francisco recently, and had the good fortune to sit next to someone who worked on sustainable nutrition as her day job. Which meant, unlike me, she really knew something about the subject. And she confirmed my fears: if we continue as we are, we will hit the fresh water wall long before we hit the climate change wall.

Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink may be a rime for our times and not just for ancient mariners.

Climate change and water. Two thorny problems that are going to worsen unless we learn to work together across nations and cultures and geographies, across social and economic classes, independent of our political and religious persuasions and beliefs.

These are just two of the biggies: others on the list include nutrition, health and wellbeing. All these in turn then have a whole slew of interrelated topics ranging from GM crops through to hydraulic fracturing.

When I was a teenager my grandfather told me that I might belong to the generation of “peak longevity” and I laughed at him. I don’t any more.

That’s part of the reason why I spend so much time looking into a wide interconnected area that covers platforms, architecture, education, organisation, communities, collaboration, collective intelligence, “emergence”, innovation, knowledge management, data and analytics, visualisation, search, identity, open source, open data, the internet, intellectual property, privacy, sharing, altruism, behavioural economics, co-evolution, group selection. That’s why I’m fascinated by the very notion of Web Science.

It’s a complex multi-layered subject. I shall resist the temptation to call it “nuanced”, having had to fight off a grimace when I hear others use that word in similar contexts.

Which is where Robin Chase’s new book Peers Inc comes in.


I know Robin quite well, and I’ve had the chance to spend time chatting over what she’s been writing about while she wrote it. And as a result I’ve been really looking forward to getting my hands on the book. So much so that when it arrived yesterday, I read through it in one long occasionally-interrupted sitting.

I’m glad I did so. Because I’m going to be reading it again, very soon. Adding to the pencil-marks already in there, annotating here and there. I found it fascinating.

An aside about reviewing books. I’ve tended to avoid summarising a book while reviewing it; instead, I try and explain why I like a book, referring to what it contains as needed but not actually detailing that content. Some of you may prefer to read a summary, in which case I will have failed you.

Peers Inc is fascinating firstly because it forms a bridge, a nexus, connecting many disparate threads, covering the “wide, interconnected area” I spoke of a few paragraphs ago. [If you want a bibliography of books to read in this context, then the one at the end of this book is a good place to start. If you want more then feel free to DM me @jobsworth on Twitter].

The most important bridge it covers is one that covers the Peers and the Inc, the essence of the title. Too often, dialogue in this space decays into dissonance. The usual polarisation of Big Bad Corporate and Pinko Utopian Treehugger, a debate which ends with everyone losing. This time the story ends differently.

Robin converts this continuous conflict, using everyday examples, into a collaborative framework where individuals and institutions can work harmoniously together. We’ve all been used to a Centralise What Is Common Federate What is Different approach in many parts of life; what the book does is to provide us an elegant yet practical way of dealing with the tension, all in the context of a hyperconnected world.

The book shows us, through a number of diverse examples, how platforms with industrial characteristics (representing the Inc) create value in partnership with talented people (the Peers) by making use of “excess capacity”. Robin calls these the “building blocks”.

George Gilder used to say that every economic era is characterised by its own unique abundances and scarcities; to succeed, businesses must make use of the abundances as well as the scarcities. Peers Inc frames “sharing” as “tapping into excess capacity”, a liquefaction of locked-up assets that allows value to be released and accreted. This is an intriguing construct, allowing for further consideration of the “excess”. What happens if someone makes capacity available sacrificially, when there was no excess to speak of? It is still sharing, but then it moves towards David Sloan Wilson’s views on altruism. [I am now part way through reading that for a second time, fascinating].

There is then a lot of rich detail on “execution” : what to consider when building platforms, how to identify excess capacity, how to attract peers, how miraculous things happen when these three come together. Those of you who are familiar with Sangeet Paul Choudhry’s and his colleagues’  work on Platform Thinking will find some encouraging connections; there are similar tangents with the works of Schmalensee and Evans on multi-sided markets. What’s exciting is that Robin looks at all this with a fresh perspective, one that combines the power of individuals and of institutions.

I was particularly taken with the way the book deals with the value of peer activity, how peers speed up innovation. Visions of Doc Searls wandering around as a sage incanting his NEA mantra “Nobody owns it, Everyone can use it, Anyone can change it”. A lot of people have written about platforms before; what this book does is to explain the symbiosis with peer activity really well.

The third section, on transforming our future, is where I did the most scribbling. How to take the ideas in the first bit and the lessons in the second bit to try and make an impact on our lives, on those of our children, and on those of our children’s children. [Having recently become a grandfather, this means a lot to me personally].

It’s written as if it was a challenge to the reader. Ask not what your world can do for you. Ask what you can do for your world, especially for the generations to come. That’s my paraphrase, so don’t blame the author for it.

Which is why, once I understood Robin’s climate change motivation, I found myself thinking seriously about the water issue as well. Generations to come. And that brings me to my next point in this review. Participation.

The book represents the start of a journey I’m going to enjoy being part of. Every one of you can do that as well. Just go here.

At the end of the book, Robin presents us with a number of conclusions, all worth reading and spending deeper time on. I am particularly interested in one to do with taxing heavily at the platform level. There is a need to ensure that the value generated by the miracle of the building blocks does not go disproportionately to the platform; without that, inequality must rise. Up to now, I have worked on the belief that there is a self-correcting mechanism in place: if peers don’t share in the wealth generated, the platform runs out of steam over time because the demand side dries up. It’s something I need to pore over, which is why I will be reading it again soon.

Something else occurred to me as I read the book.

It’s rubbish.

No, not the book. The stuff below. [Photo courtesy Jayanand].


When dealing with the three building blocks, the book takes us carefully and instructively through a slice/aggregate/make open cycle, showing how that allows excess capacity to be collated and made easily usable. And it made me think of rubbish and recycling. Right now the whole recycling business looks broken, if the landfills that scar this earth are anything to go by. Lots of well-meaning people separating all kinds of things that then end up in one unsightly mess somewhere ostensibly out of sight of most people, and then making an embarrassing appearance when least wanted.

Waste is an inelegant form of excess. Nowadays, when I select ingredients for cooking, one of the things I do is weigh up how much of what I’m buying is destined not to be used by me. Some of the packaging is artificial, some natural. One needs artificial recycling, the other making into compost. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that the right platform from Inc will empower Peers to sort this problem out once and for all, by making waste collection and filtering a proper edge activity, and by creating exchange or auction based mechanisms to discover inventory, price and quantity.

Those are the kinds of ideas that floated around my head as I read the book. It touches on many things we’re all thinking about, but puts them together in a three-building-block framework that is pragmatic and useful.

That framework represents an AND in a world dominated by EITHER/OR. Individuals AND corporates. Digital AND physical. Local AND global. Every time the book comes to an either/or, it makes an and of it, and that is incredibly useful when it comes to dialogue and debate on this and related subjects.

None of this is easy. Every time someone mentions digital business as being disruptive, there are those whose eyes, minds and hearts glaze over. Every time someone mentions sharing, abundance and communities, there are those who exhibit similar responses.

This book is for them. It provides a sensible way to look at the world we live in from a digital perspective, without it being all about profit or all not about profit.

We need equanimity, facts, balance when we debate many of the global issues we face. This is exemplified by the Bruce Schneier quote somewhere in the middle:

Between the quick and the strong, what we need is a stalemate. We need a proper balance between institutional and distributed power. The more we can balance power among various groups, the more stable society will be.

This book is for everyone who thinks the statement above makes sense. So go buy it now and read it.

A coda. If you’ve made it this far. I decided to write my first Amazon review, and wanted it to be much shorter and punchier than this post. So this is what I said there:

Been looking forward to this book for some time, and I wasn’t disappointed. The three-building-block model of looking at current business models in a hyperconnected world: peers, platforms and excess capacity: is a very useful way of approaching it. The tips on how to build sustainable businesses using these blocks are considered and valuable; and the section on implications for the future and what we can do about it is challenging and inspiring. All in all an excellent book covering some very important ground.

Murmurations on a Sunday morning

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




I Feel The Earth Move


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for me to use the f-word.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel the earth/move/under my feet.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Let me take just two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before signing off on air, Benaud pronounced:

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

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

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

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

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