Rainmaker, make me some rain

Rainmaker, rainmaker

Make me some rain

Make all my crops grow tall

Winwood/Capaldi : Rainmaker, Side 2 Track 3

The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, Traffic, 1971

Perspective matters.

Every childhood memory of rain that I have is filled with joy, with energy, with positive things. The feeling of elation walking along the Maidan in Calcutta, being able to smell the rain before it reached me. Hearing, almost feeling, the earth get its thirst slaked. The utter shock of getting completely drenched in mere seconds, caught in a Bombay monsoon downpour. Walking serenely while getting seriously wet, stopping only to shake the drops off your eyelashes so you could see. Looking forward to the rough-and-tumble of an afternoon football match played in mud, glorious mud.

Rain was when the streets flooded and you fought your way to school, thigh-deep, occasionally waist-deep, in rainwater. Rain was when you knew the school would be shut when you got there, but it didn’t matter, because you then had the joy of splashing your way back home.

Rain was when you did crazy things like this.

Yes, when I think of rain, I don’t think stuff like “into every life some rain must fall” or “don’t rain on my parade”. I think Thank You God.

This is a thank you post. Not a Thank You God post: thanking God is something I do do, but mainly in private and not usually via a blog post.

This is a thank you Steve Winwood post.

Over the years, many of my childhood heroes have passed away; a disproportionate number appear to have done so this past year or two. That has made me feel sad. And it made me think I should make the time to say thank you to heroes of mine who are still alive while they are still alive, rather than linking to eulogies when they’re no longer with us.

So thank you Steve Winwood.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 13.45.35

I’ve never met the man. But I’ve seen him in concert ten times, and loved it every time. In fact, over the last thirty years, I’ve watched Steve Winwood more often than I’ve watched anyone else, including the Dead or CSN/Y, which is saying something. I’ve seen him at the Odeon, the Empire (multiple times), the Royal Albert Hall, and even a couple of times as far away as Shoreline.

At the Roundhouse (one of my favourite venues) in 2010 I was in row one standing, pressed right against the barriers in front of the stage, touching distance from his piano. It was amazing. Until then the nearest I’d got to him was when I visited a pub somewhere out west, I think it was in a village near Gloucester, sometime in the early 1980s, and he was there.

I still remember my utter joy when I saw this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 14.39.20

Yes I know, it probably wasn’t him, it was more likely to be someone who looked after his account. But then again….. this filled me with child-like joy, enough to ping my siblings in India. That should tell you how much I really like Winwood as a musician and as a performer.

You should, too. If you haven’t already been converted, just listen to his stuff. Go here, to his website and to his vaults, explore, enjoy.

The early years, with the Spencer Davis Group; the incredible times with Traffic, both before and after Blind Faith; the superlative sessions that became Blind Faith; and the consistently delightful solo career since. Fifty years, thirty albums, a joy throughout. [I shall resist the temptation to say a Sea of Joy throughout].

From the “is this really a white man singing? ” raw power of Gimme Some Lovin’, through the gentle sadnesses of Evening Blue or (Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired, the soaring sequences of Had To Cry Today, the folksiness of John Barleycorn or Forty Thousand Headmen, the sheer poetry of Can’t Find My Way Home, the metamorphosis into Higher Love and Roll With It and Back In The High Life Again and When You See A Chance. A metamorphosis that continues today, over half a century since he began.

Make the time. Listen to Winwood. Go watch him in concert while you can. You won’t regret it.

I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m immensely grateful. Thank you Steve Winwood.

And (in advance of next Thursday), happy 68th birthday.

Crosswords and buses

Sometime next year, it will have been fifty years since I first completed the Times crossword, some weeks short of my tenth birthday. For many years it wasn’t just a pastime, it was an addiction, something I’ve written about before, most recently here. Doing the crossword was part and parcel of getting ready for the day, as habitual and routine as having the morning’s first cup of coffee or cigarette.

We used to spend weeks every summer in Madras with my grandfather. Initially it was in Tambaram, at his “Professor of Chemistry” house at Madras Christian College. By the time I was hooked he’d moved to Adyar, and I still remember, vividly, having to make the daily trip to a little newsagent in Luz who carried the Calcutta Statesman, just so I could do the day’s puzzle.

When I came to England I continued with the habit, and even entered the national championships. In those days it used to be called the Cutty Sark; by the time I stopped going I think it was called the Langs Supreme. I made the national finals a few times, when there were still a few hundred competitors left; I never quite made it into the Elite top group. When they stopped allowing people to smoke at the table I stopped entering. Nicotine and caffeine were very much part of my crossword-solving experience.

That was a long time ago. It’s been years since I’ve smoked, years since I’ve had a cup of coffee. Once I’d given them up, I wondered if I’d ever go back to regular crossword solving. I went in for one of the competitions a few years ago just to see what would happen; qualifying wasn’t a problem;  the absence of cigarettes and coffee didn’t appear to be an issue; but boy was I rusty. Slow. Ponderous. And so I didn’t get very far that day.

This year I’ve been getting back on the crossword bicycle. And quite enjoying it again sans nicotine, sans caffeine.

A few days ago I was travelling to the US and, while waiting for the plane to take off, polished off the day’s challenge. The topic came up in conversation with a fellow passenger, and I recounted my Calcutta experiences.

That made me wonder whether the Statesman still carried the puzzle, and so, when I returned to the UK, I checked. Apparently it stopped some years ago, although I see the Hindustan Times has stepped in to continue the syndication.

Then, yesterday, a good friend, Rory Sutherland, tweeted me a link to this wonderful article, a fascinating study of the people who solve proper cryptic crosswords, and of the expertise deployed.

And then, today, I came across Rose Wild’s rejoinder to Ian Baird’s concerns on the evolution of the cryptic crossword. [Sadly behind paywall]. It’s about how idiom and slang enter and exit the crossword pantheon.

Looks like stories involving crosswords follow the pattern set by London buses.

Incidentally, the research article referred to by Rory contains two and a half of the answers to the prize crossword in today’s Times.

Desafinado

Desafinado.

Portuguese for “Slightly out of tune”. And the name of a wonderful bossa nova song written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. A song that made its way into my heart via the brilliance of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd et al on an album called Jazz Samba.

117708760-2

I didn’t just fall in love with the song, I fell in love with the very word itself, what it meant, what it stood for. Slightly. Out. Of. Tune. I was eighteen or nineteen and it described, perfectly, how I felt about myself and about the world then.

[I was lucky enough to be able to see Charlie Byrd when he visited Calcutta soon after, something I wrote about here.]

At the heart of my slightly-out-of-tune-ness was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on then, a sense of being at peace while in disequilibrium.

That was a long time ago, while I was still in my teens. In eighteen months time I will be 60.

This morning I went shopping for a razor. Ever since I left India, in 1980, I’ve been a Gillette man, listening to the siren call of their marketing while moving from the Trac II through the Sensor and the Sensor Excel to the Mach. More recently I dallied with King of Shaves and then tried one of these newfangled subscription services.

I don’t particularly like shaving; I’d much rather have a beard; but my wife doesn’t like beards, they’re not easy to keep clean and now I have to think about how my grandson would feel. So I go shopping for a razor.

Of late, particularly since I switched away from Gillette, I have been less than happy with my shave. Five o’clock shadow at variable times of day. So I went shopping for a razor.

FullSizeRender

That’s the kind of razor my father used. Maybe old habits die hard. But it’s the kind of razor that I came back home with today. Habits. What would you do without them?

It wasn’t quite the razor my dad used. What was metal was now ceramic. The child, the young man, the nostalgist in me, only wanted one thing: that the blade-box had a tiny slit through which I could slide the next blade when needed. And it did. So all was fine with the world.

IMG_4525

Hmmm. Why am I prattling on about razors and shaving? Have I finally lost it (if I ever had it, I hear you murmur)?

That blade, that blade-box, that razor, they all represent something that’s been part of my ethos ever since I could use words like ethos.

And that is this: to be able to cherish and hold the past while knowing it will never be back, to live in and to keep learning from the present knowing it will soon be past, and to look forward to the future and to keep applying whatever I’ve learnt, knowing that it too will pass.

[Occasionally I run out of steam or joy or optimism or whatever, and for a very short period I am empty. Blank. At my wits’ end. But those times are rare, and they too tend to pass.]

I love spending time with my mother and with my siblings, with my cousins and aunts and uncles, the family I grew up with, and I love reminiscing with them.  I do that in the here-and-now.

I love spending time with my school and college friends, some of whom I’ve kept in touch with for over fifty years. I love keeping in touch with colleagues whom I’ve worked with over the past four decades.

I love spending time with my wife and my children and my grandchildren (OK, my single solitary grandchild, if you insist on being pedantic; I live in the hope and expectation of more, many more).

Memories. Memories of shared experiences, of laughter and tears, of pleasure, even occasionally of pain.

It’s not wrong to look back and to remember, fondly, how things used to be.

It’s important to see that things have changed. When I meet my mother and siblings, I have to understand that they are not the family I left in India when I migrated to England in 1980. They have experiences that weren’t shared with me, experiences with their husbands and wives and children and colleagues and neighbourhoods; experiences with laughter and with tears. Memories.

When I go to Calcutta, I have to remember not just that it’s not the Calcutta I left in 1980. I have to remember that it will never be the Calcutta I left in 1980. It too has experiences that aren’t shared with me.

Change is not an easy thing to deal with. Cataclysmic change even less so. When I was younger I was fascinated by stories of great civilisations. How they came into being. And how they stopped being. How what’s left of them influences what today is.

Even today, I continue to be fascinated by the rise and fall of many things: civilisations, empires, cities, towns, religions, fashions, diets, everything. Which means I read and re-read a strange pantheon of writers: Jane Jacobs. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Joseph Tainter. Just to give you a few examples.

Change is not an easy thing to deal with. Cataclysmic change even less so.

Some people would like to Make America Great Again. Some people would like to Make America Great Britain Again. We want to airbrush and photoshop history, we want to cocoon ourselves and escape from today’s reality.

We want to turn back time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if…..

Many of the things we invent to solve some problem or the other come with the risk of creating new problems while solving old ones. Much of our angst comes from using tools designed to solve old problems to try and solve new ones.

We want to put the genie back in the bottle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if….

I want to be able to marvel at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, at Indus Valley Civilisation, in just the same way as I want to marvel at Incan or Aztec or Mayan or Greek or Roman or Egyptian civilisation. I want to be able to look at the chili pepper I am about to eat and reminisce about the role that Columbus and da Gama played in introducing that spice into Indian cuisine. I want to be able to celebrate and to mourn the past without trying to force-fit it into the present.

Kevin Kelly, in one of his excellent books, said something about one of the roles of technology being to speed up evolution. I like that. I really like that. [Incidentally, I hope to be spending time reading his latest book, The Inevitable, as soon as I can lay my hands on it].

There’s a lot of anger in the world right now. Maybe it’s always been there, but right now it feels to me as if I’ve never seen this level of anger before.

If that anger was deeply rooted in seriously depressed economies, large swathes of people completely unable to make ends meet, increasing ill health, severe repression, considerable growth in crime, a general and growing concern about personal safety,  and a bleak outlook for the future overall, then it’s the kind of anger that makes for revolutions. Maybe. My gut says it isn’t so. My gut says it’s more to do with the sweeping changes we’ve had even in my short lifetime, and the disaffection that such change entails.

For sure there’s a lot of turmoil. States “failing”. Refugees in their millions. Whatever the reason and the stimulus, there’s a lot of turmoil.

That turmoil doesn’t just challenge the status quo, it sets back any attempt to reverse that status quo back into a cherished past. Make <historical-civilisation-of-choice> great again.

So there’s a lot of anger. Some of that anger is directed at the pillars of erstwhile society: the government, the politicians, the priests, the policemen, the financiers, the industrialists. Big is not beautiful in such times. Some of that anger is directed at the symptoms of change, some at the tools of change.

The anger is about the change.

Not all of that change is reversible.

So I remain unangry. I remain desafinado.

Slightly out of tune.

 

 

 

 

Routing around obstacles

 

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. So said John Gilmore in an article published over twenty years ago. A few years later John Perry Barlow came up with A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

1407868845000-max-yasgur

Growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, people like me thought of this guy as a hero. Max Yasgur. A stream of consciousness that included Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills and Nash and Matthews Southern Comfort. Camping out on the land and setting my soul free.

My grandfather’s generation lived through two world wars and a struggle for independence; my father’s generation through a good deal of that; Korea and Vietnam were soon t0 follow, and the Middle East was all set to take centre stage.

Not surprisingly, many in the generation I was and am part of took heart at the promise of community, of togetherness, of connected people changing the world. Not surprisingly, that is likely to have influenced much of how I thought about the internet, the Web, connected communities. I wasn’t alone in that, whole shelves of books have probably been written about it.

That’s the kind of reason why I’ve always said that the roots of my understanding of open source were more in the Grateful Dead and in the Well than in anything else.

This optimism had an early payoff. Those who were in India between 1975 and 1977 will remember the Emergency. Dark days. Totalitarian control. Terror. Censorship. Opposition in jail. Total. Control.

And then they called an election.

The opposition cried foul.

And yet.

The opposition won.

I was 17 when the Emergency began, 19 when it ended. Many said that the 1977 election was the greatest show democracy had ever put on.

I believed.

Roll forward to today.

Polarised opinion everywhere. Polarisation that quickly became hate, with physical violence close to the surface, leaking out here and there. Extremism. Guerrilla terrorism. People and parties hitherto considered unelectable getting elected, with the likelihood of more to come. A connected world getting rapidly disconnected. Barriers coming up, not just the ones of the past, but new ones as well. Hatred everywhere.

Hmmm.

That wasn’t the way it was meant to be.

I grew up in the Summer of Love. I was seeing something closer to the Winter of Hate.

Hmmm.

As a grandfather, I found myself in the same place that many generations before me had found themselves. What kind of world are we bringing our descendants into? Is it better or worse than the one we came into?

I believe in the power of connected people working together for good. I believe that those connections get harder and harder to game, to filter centrally, to control. I believe that as a result this world can be a better place.

I believe there doesn’t have to be a continuing Winter of Hate. But it needs three things.

Ubiquitous, affordable connectivity.

Education.

More than anything else, a respect for human dignity, a tolerance for diversity.

Whatever happens with the current polarised debates, referenda, elections, wars and terrorism, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong; there is an after to come, an after where there are no winners and losers. Just people who have to learn to live together.

That “after” requires all three things: the connectivity, the education, the respect for human dignity.

That’s what we have to ensure we leave to our children’s children.

Routing around obstacles.

Thinking about unGoogleable questions and cricket

Please note: Unless you’re a complete cricket statto nerd, this post is unlikely to be of the slightest interest to you. [Updated following comments. See below].

Many years ago, I used to take pleasure in setting questions that were hard to answer via Google.

My favourite example was this: In Test cricket, we are currently playing Test numbers 2197 and 2198. In each Test, we can have up to 44 “completed innings”, if all 11 players bat twice. So we have, as of today, a maximum of 2198×44 or close to 100,000 individual “completed innings” scores. In practice the total number of completed innings is much lower, probably closer to 50,000.

The lowest possible completed innings is 0. The highest achieved so far is Brian Lara’s 400. All the other innings completed so far are somewhere between 0 and 400.

Now imagine you have a Bingo card with all the numbers from 0 to 400. Imagine every completed innings to be a number called at the bingo session.

My unGoogleable question used to be: What is the lowest unscratched number on the card? But since I’ve written about it years ago, the answer is  now easily discoverable. It’s 229. No batsman has ended a Test innings on 229 thus far.

Obviously this number moves. The last time it moved was when Herschelle Gibbs scored 228 almost exactly thirteen years ago.

When Gibbs scored 228, there were one hundred and seventeen unscratched numbers between 228 and 400.

This past year, 2015, was a bumper year for scratches. We lost 245 to Shoaib Malik, 263 to Alastair Cook, 269 to Adam Voges and 290 to Ross Taylor.

Here’s what has happened since Gibbs’ 228:

  • 2003: Hayden scratches 280
  • 2004: Tendulkar lays aside 241 and 248; Atapattu flays 249; Sehwag takes out 309; Jayasuriya removes 253; and Lara blasts 400. A record year, six scratched.
  • 2005: Gayle hammers 317
  • 2006: Jayawardene slams 374
  • 2007: A fallow year
  • 2008: Sehwag (again!) takes out 319
  • 2009: Sehwag (yet again!) demolishes 293 and Younis does the same to 313
  • 2010: Another fallow year
  • 2011: Cook (who also shone last year) erases 294
  • 2012: Fallow
  • 2013: Fallow
  • 2014: Fallow (though Sangakkara doubled up Sehwag’s 319)
  • 2015: 245 (Shoaib) 263 (Cook) 269 (Voges) 290 (Taylor) disappear

So, since Herschelle Gibbs hit his 228, we’ve seen seventeen of the unscratched go, four last year alone.

Just one hundred more to go.