Big Data, tastefully done

Negative food pairing

 

Take 2543 recipes from 8 subcuisines.

Use 194 unique ingredients drawn from 15 unique categories.

Connect the dots.

Oh frabjous day. A friend of mine, Sandee Weiner, shared an article with me, taken from TechnologyReview.com.

That in turn pointed to this piece of research Spices Form the Basis of Food Pairing in Indian Cuisine.

As I read it, I felt hungry. [Reading about food makes me hungry. Writing about food makes me hungry. Thinking about food makes me hungry. So, not surprisingly, I’m often hungry].

Then, as I finished reading it, I felt satisfied. Gently, pleasingly so. A bit bemused, as should be the case after every good meal. [It goes with being taken on a voyage of discovery through the world of spices]. But satisfied I was.

Part of that satisfaction lay in a distant sense of feeling vindicated. [And here I start treading on dangerous ground]. It’s to do with molecular gastronomy. When I first heard about it, I was boringly fascinated. It was so obvious, why hadn’t it been done before? It must have been done before, why hadn’t I seen it in action before?  You know what I mean.

Once I could afford it, and once I had manufactured sufficient reason, I went to the Fat Duck, in the mid 1990s. And a few other places around the world, particularly in Europe, where the chefs thought similarly.

And I loved some dishes; hated others. Overall I wasn’t amused.

Years later I found myself in an odd place. I had no interest in going to The Fat Duck, even though it was very close to home. I far preferred going to the Hind’s Head Hotel, a stone’s throw from there. Or the Crown, two stones’ throw in the other direction. The strange thing was that all three were Heston Blumenthal properties.

This unease with molecular gastronomy stayed with me. I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt that way. It was something along the lines of “I experience food with all my senses,  in some primitive variant of synaesthesia. The proponents of molecular gastronomy, most of the time, seem to create dishes that titillate only some of those senses.”

It didn’t stop me eating in the handful of restaurants when called to, and I found ways to enjoy the dishes on offer, but they never quite transported me.

It was in that state of mind that I started discovering food pairing, the next big thing from the molecular gastronomy stable. And it didn’t have any real appeal for me. I was left totally unmoved, as I was when I had my first haggis, from a MacSween’s in Bruntsfield in 1980. [It was to become an incredible experience soon after; when I passed by there a few days later, I was asked what I thought of my first haggis. I told them “bland, tasteless, can’t see what you see in it”. I wasn’t to know that I was speaking to a MacSween, who took it as a challenge and proceeded  to make me a “curried” haggis a day later. And it was heavenly].

My confusion with food pairing was based on an instinct where I looked for diversity in ingredients, yet with some tacit rules about combination. Those rules were important to me. My gut feel was that flavours were constructed the way musical chords were constructed. A set of distinct notes selected with some clear understanding of what went with what; lots of variations possible, yet with a clear underlying philosophy.

And so, when I read the article this post is about, I felt vindicated. More to follow, what do you think?

Thinking about Turning Points

 

 

 

 

Around forty years ago, a friend of mine, Gyan Nain Singh, walked into my house with an album I’d never heard before. The Turning Point. Sure, I’d heard of John Mayall. Sure, I’d listened to some of the early Bluesbreakers stuff. By then I’d even managed to acquire a copy of Empty Rooms, the album he released after The Turning Point. But for some reason I’d never heard that particular album.

[Sadly Gyan is no more; he influenced me in ways I’m still discovering, and I remain grateful. Thank you Gyan.]

Here’s what the album liner notes said:

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An aside. I wanted to show people what the liner notes said. Now I have an original 1969 vinyl version of the album, but I wanted to see if there was an easier way. And there was. Thank you AlbumLinerNotes.com.

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In those days I used to listen to a lot of the music Mayall describes above, with the “heavy lead guitar and drums” prominent. And usually listened to with the volume turned way way up.

What intrigued me was that someone at the top of his profession, someone already a legend, someone already known for having mentored a vast number of “greats”, was still capable of such radical experimentation. A lifelong learner.

I’d already discovered Brubeck and Getz and their ilk; I’d been listening to Traffic, Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears for some time by then (in point of fact it was Gyan again who introduced me to BST). So it wasn’t the instruments Mayall was introducing that intrigued and enchanted me. I was spellbound by what he was leaving out. No drums. No keyboards.

And if that wasn’t enough: “I set about forming a new band which would be able to explore seldom-used areas within the framework of low volume music.”

Explorations in low-volume music. That couldn’t have come at a better time for me, I was just metamorphosing out of the head-banging stage and into the sitting-crosslegged-in-dark-smoky-rooms-and-swaying-gently stage.

Listening to that album taught me something about true visionaries: they have this amazing ability to move out of spaces dominated by them into completely new spaces where there were many lessons to learn before mastery could be achieved. The word “visionary” was not in my mind at that time, all I knew was that there was something remarkable, something uncanny, about the way Mayall experimented with music: the band members, the instruments, the framework, the format, the volume, the time signature, everything.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Mayall perform many times since, and I treasure each of those times. Over the years I’ve heard him perform the three songs that make up one of the best vinyl sides ever:

California/Thoughts about Roxanne/Room to Move.

Incredible. If you haven’t heard them yet, don’t miss this opportunity.

In later years I would come across many many instances where an individual or an organisation changes radically mid-stream; while Steve Jobs did it a few times, the one that really stuck in my mind was when he pulled out of the iPod mini in order to resource up the iPhone and iPad. Similarly Marc Benioff “saw” something and changed tack at speed, taking half the development resources of the company and committing them to building Chatter.

Today we use terms like “pivot” all the time. In a digital age it has become easier to implement feedback loops for products and services, to sense what the customer says, to respond.

Those are pivots. Not Turning Points of The Turning Point class.

Quitting while you’re ahead in order to learn and master new things is hard in itself. Choosing those new things and calling the market right while doing that is even harder.

So.

John Mayall. Thank you for showing me how it’s done, all those years ago. [And Gyan Singh, ditto].

Of barons and corvos, continued

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I wrote about interventions that were needed to ensure that the Second Machine Age does not accelerate inequality. Continuing to think about that, I wanted to share a few things that came my way over the past 24 hours.

First, let me add a few bits about inequality.

The Gini Index is a useful tool for looking at income inequality, and in that context I found the two charts below instructive. The evolution of the index helps us see how interventions in public policy (particularly those on rights of access and operating in community) can battle inequality.

gini-index-usa

 

 

The second chart helped me understand a little more about the rising levels of polarisation that appear to accompany the rise in inequality. I’d signalled my concerns about this trend briefly in my first post of 2014.

 

House_Polarization_and_Gini_Index

 

Second, let me do the same with the theme of technology and evolution.

While doing my weekly scan of the Economist, I chanced upon this delightful paper on The Evolution of Air Resonance Power Efficiency in The Violin and Its Ancestors. A perfect example of the selection process in the evolution of technological artefacts. My thanks to the people at the Royal Society for making the material easily accessible and shareable. I’ve had the privilege of dining there a few times (most recently earlier this week, at the annual Labs to Riches dinner), and I fervently believe that institutions like the Society will become critical in helping us rein in the dangers of growing inequality.

Third, let me go back to the theme of the Second Machine Age 

….and its propensity to foment inequality unless humanity intervenes (usually in the form of the state, but sadly not quickly enough nor often enough).

I was alerted by an erstwhile colleague to a link that Mitch Joel had shared, on the apparent “secret to the Uber economy”: wealth inequality. It’s a classic argument that comes up every time we have butterfly markets, places where the wings of demand and the wings of supply come together in small bodies of middlemen.

It reminded me of conversations I’ve had with Peter Vesterbacka of Rovio, usually at DLD Munich, one of my favourite conferences. Here I’m paraphrasing him, but the gist of what he said encouraged me. Angry Birds was something like the 53rd game out of the Rovio stable. All the others didn’t get very far. Why? Because they had to deal with 180 different middlemen to get distribution in EU alone, each of whom felt they knew more about games than Rovio did, each of whom insisted on different and unique conditions, and each of whom insisted on keeping the lion’s share of the take.

Then Apple came along. Yes, Apple, the company that is currently worth more than any other company in the world, worth more than double its nearest competitor for that title. It is instructive for me to learn that Apple made it easier for Rovio to get global distribution and at the same time lowered transaction costs sharply in relation to Rovio’s prior experience with the phalanx of MVNOs.

Platform and exchange structures per se are not the problem. It’s when that structure can retain disproportionate shares of the take. You only have to look at the music and film industries for the last 100 years to understand what that disproportionateness looks like, and why Hollywood and the RIAA fight so hard to retain their historical models.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I will never meet the customer for whose benefit region coding on DVDs was invented.

In every market, there is always the temptation for middlemen to do three things: make it harder for others to become middlemen; having protected their market, to extract monopoly rents from both sides; and to somehow claim state protection for their monopoly.

This has always been truer. And it’s truer still in digital markets with butterfly shapes. Which is why the Apple example is instructive. It’s textbook Abundance Economics rather than the Scarcity Economics played out by the film and music industries.

Finally, let me spend a little time on rules and regulations.

Today was not a good day for the England cricket team. It was an even worse day for England’s James Taylor, who was denied the chance to make his maiden ODI century, and that too in a World Cup match against Australia in Australia.

He was denied that chance because three umpires (two on-field and one off-field) could not make the right decision. Considering how long it took me to (a) find the relevant rule and (b) interpret it, I am not at all surprised.

They had to be fully cognizant with the content of The ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 Playing Conditions, a document of nearly 30 pages, with the relevant rule stuck in an Appendix:

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Now remember that this was in Appendix 6. The main body of the Rules, themselves to be read in conjunction with The Laws of Cricket (2000 Code 5th Edition – 2013), a much larger document, didn’t spend any time discussing the complete mess that administrators had made of the Decision Review System. After all, DRS only dealt with trivial stuff like whether someone should be ruled out or not. The main body, instead, had gems like this:

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 22.11.11

 

A minimum of 25.15 yards. Heaven help me. No wonder the world of sport is in the state it’s in.

There was some good that came out of the incident this morning. The ICC, the Governing Body, saw fit to say that a mistake had been made. And they saw fit to put out a statement to this effect in less than 2 hours. Bravo.

In a connected world where the evolution of public policy has meant that people, money, goods and ideas can travel at speed, we will tend to feel that life’s getting “faster”. In business as well as in sport, in public as well as in private life, there’s a perceived need to make decisions more quickly than ever before. Which puts pressure on the people and the services that are there to help you make decisions.

It also puts pressure on the people whose job it is to make sure that the right thing is done, and that things are done the right way. Who are these people?

Regulators. Regulators the world over. Using names like umpire and referee and judge and inspector and officer. And sometimes even just plain old vanilla “regulator”.

These people are the cadre of humanity tasked with the job of making sure that humanity’s interventions are meaningful. We’re not going to stop the runaway growth of inequality as The Second Machine Age gathers “steam”, not unless we make the jobs of regulators simpler.

Which means making regulations simpler. In every walk of life. We must all realise that hidden deep in the complexity of regulation are the very tools that the Robber Barons need. We have to fight that complexity.

Which is why I found Charlemagne’s column in the latest Economist timely. I could not help but smile wryly when I learnt that Frans Timmermans, the man the EU has charged with the responsibility of helping us build those interventions,  has the title First Vice President for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. You cannot make stuff like this up.

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The entire article is well worth reading.

And so to my summary, following on from yesterday’s post.

The Digital Age, the Age of Information, the Second Machine Age we live in, provides us with many Good Things. But it also has an inbuilt propensity to increase global inequality. Which is Not A Good Thing. It is a downright Bad Thing.

We need to know how to hold on to the Good Things of this Age while minimising the Bad Things. We’ve seen this movie before, we know how the book ends. We need to do a number of things. Democratise access. Empower and educate communities. Protect the commons. Prevent monopolies.

That’s why the battles for net neutrality, for affordable access, for rebuilding IP law and for continuing to fight discrimination are important. Without them the Robber Barons win.

So we need meaningful regulation. Regulation that understands the nature of technology and how technology evolves. Regulation that learns from the past, looking at how the less salubrious aspects of the Industrial Revolution were contained and eradicated. Regulation  that looks to the future by, for example, avoiding the benighted pressure from incumbents to criminalise the young.

We don’t just need meaningful regulation.

It has to be kept simple.

For it is in the weeds of poor regulation that the strongest Robber Barons find food and sustenance.

Of robber Barons and Corvo antics

 

 

 

 

A few days ago someone sent me a link to Robert Reich’s piece in Slate, “America is headed full speed back to the 19th century (on the dangers of on-demand jobs and our growing intolerance for labour unions). And somewhere in my head it joined a long list of jeremiads on the evils of [choose one or more]: AI and robotics; the share economy; social networks; smart mobile devices; search engines; open source; the Web; the internet.

As is usual with such articles, once you strip away the obligatory sensationalist headline, a “reasonable” core hypothesis remains. And as is usual with such articles, I feel a deep niggly feeling. Often it’s not what the article said that niggles me, but what it didn’t say.

Evolution is about change and about adapting effectively to change. When it comes to technology, it’s worth thinking about technological change in a similar way, that it’s part of a collective “evolution”. A wave that can’t be turned back that easily by the Canutes of the day. In this context I love Kevin Kelly’s approach to thinking about how technology “evolves”, and would commend What Technology Wants to anyone who hasn’t read it. His TED Talk is a worthwhile teaser to the topic.

If I’ve understood Reich correctly, his argument is that markets were organised for the benefit of a narrow few as the Industrial Revolution hit maturity, and that it needed state intervention to change that, in terms of labour and equality and antitrust, amongst others. This was readily visible by 1950 and continued to grow till around 1980. Since then, he argues, markets are reverting to being for the benefit of the few; unless something changes, we’ll be back in 1890.

Yup.

Unless something changes.

When thinking about this, I found the construct used by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee particularly useful. If you haven’t done so already, go out and buy The Second Machine Age, it’s an excellent foundation for dealing with this issue.

Following their tack, there was a First Machine Age, the Industrial Revolution. Good things followed, and some bad things. Humanity’s challenge was to try and hold on to the good things while minimising the bad. And humanity managed to do that, through shifts in public policy.

Now we’re in the Second Machine Age. Good things are following. And some bad things. Humanity is challenged again to hold on to the good while minimising the bad. We’ve seen this movie before. If we want to stop Robber Barons from getting stronger and stronger, if we want to prevent the world from becoming even more unequal, some intervening actions are required.

What intervening actions?

It’s not that hard a question. The technological evolution that has been taking place for the last sixty-odd years, the Second Machine Age, is a digital one. One that is based around information. So perhaps we should start with public policy interventions that relate to that digital infrastructure.

Interventions to do with access, like Net Neutrality. If you want to know more, read Tim Berners-Lee’s recent post, the latest in a decade’s debate on the topic.

Interventions to do with access, like Intellectual Property Rights. If you want to know what’s wrong with the current picture, this piece, on the continuing criminalisation of the “not 1%”, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a good place to start.

Interventions to do with access, like education. We have to celebrate institutions from codecademy through to Khan Academy, techniques from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). We have to get behind institutions like the Web Science Trust and the Open Data Institute. We have to learn from, disseminate and act on the research available on things that go wrong in the digital age, from cybersecurity through to bullying, from privacy and confidentiality issues through to the right to be forgotten. We have to continue to learn, and to teach, about “literacy” in a digital world.

The maturity of the First Machine Age was to be seen in public policy shifts that reduced many forms of discrimination, that democratised access and that empowered connected communities.

The maturity of the Second Machine Age will be seen in public policy shifts that reduce many forms of discrimination, democratise access and empower connected communities.

Again.

Except this time it’s in a digital rather than physical context. A context of the abundance of digital rather than the scarcity of physical.

What hasn’t changed is that it’s still about people, about reducing inequality, about ensuring that markets function for the benefit of the many rather than the few.

When you look at the battlefield of cyberspace over the past quarter of a century, when you look at the skirmishes and engagements to do with access and property rights and culture in digital space, and you wonder which side is right, keep asking yourself this: Does this increase or decrease human inequality?

In every one of the battles to do with IPR or Net Neutrality, there’s a scenario where a few stand to gain, and one where many stand to gain. Ask yourself which scenario will ensure that the continuing “evolution” of digital infrastructure reduces rather than increases inequality.

Imagine a world where developed countries signed up to “equality targets”, promising to reduce inequality by a meaningful number of basis points every year. Most of the intellectual property law changes over the past twenty years wouldn’t have made it into a first draft. There wouldn’t have been any need for debates on net neutrality. Digital divides would have been prevented. Digital literacy would have been seen as a fundamental right on the road to equality.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably at the point where you say all this doesn’t matter, we’re all going to be taken over by robots anyway.

I’m not sure about it. Not until I can sue a robot, as I’ve said before. Follow the money.

Not until a robot can laugh at this Only Fools and Horses sketch, as I’ve said before.

Me, I’m going to wait until I read a headline that says “Roof-surfing robot caught on tape”

Dallas Taylor: RIP

 

 

 

Dallas Woodrow Taylor Jr passed away last month. Many of you may not know of him or remember him, but he was the session drummer on some of the finest albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s:

220px-CrosbystillsandnashCrosby,_Stills,_Nash_&_Young_-_Deja_Vu

220px-Stephenstills

220px-Manassasss

I remember the first time I heard Deja Vu, and couldn’t help noticing then that Taylor and Reeves were given credits on the front cover. That wasn’t normal, and it signalled to me that these two weren’t normal musicians. [In fact, other than the Manassas album above, the only time I’d seen front-cover credits for sessions guys was on Traffic’s Welcome To The Canteen, another fabulous album from that era.

220px-Traffic-Welcome_to_the_Canteen_(album_cover)

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I’m a big fan of CSNY, individually as well as collectively. Over the years I’ve now managed to watch them many times in different combinations, and every time I’ve done so I’ve been grateful not just for the opportunity but for the memories. It’s hard to describe how I felt when I heard those albums for the first time.

Serendipitously, I’ve been able to renew my acquaintance with some of those feelings, listening to this:

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Yes, it’s a Pono. And yes I know the jury’s still out on whether 24/192 is snake oil or not. Time will tell. I paid the Kickstarter price for a numbered “signed” edition by one of my favourite bands, pre-loaded with some of their music, and I’m happy with how it sounds and feels, especially if I crank up the volume.

I’m listening to it right now, and Dallas Taylor is on drums. And I’m taken back 40 years, to a time of delight. Delight that Dallas Taylor was part of.

Delight that Dallas Taylor will always be part of.

By the time I connected with Dallas, briefly, five or six years ago, he’d been doing something completely different for thirty years: helping people solve problems of substance abuse and addiction. He still had time to read my tweet and to respond. He still had time to put a smile on my face, just like he did forty years earlier.

Thank you Dallas Taylor. RIP.

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