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From saving to spending: getting hooked on the new LSD

From 1966 to 1969 I used to take the bus to school. It looked a bit like this, except it was in grey and it still worked. Just about. It would take us an hour to cover three miles or so.

 

The rest of the time, I walked to school. Before I turned 12, we’d moved to within fifteen minutes walk of the school, so that isn’t saying much.

But walk we did, and walking was considered normal. It helped that we lived in what I considered the centre of town, even though technically it was “south Calcutta”. I felt I could walk anywhere I wanted within an hour and a half, and most places in less than an hour. If it was too hot (which it sometimes was) or if it was too wet (which happened like clockwork during the monsoon), there were other options available, trams and buses aplenty. Most of the time, Shank’s Pony was the easy option, so I walked. So much so that I never learnt to drive. I still don’t know how to drive. And, not surprisingly, my favourite cities are walking cities, albeit occasionally augmented by public transport.

In those days, electricity used to be a luxury in Calcutta. Regular power cuts were common and referred to as load-shedding.

It wasn’t much fun. The PC hadn’t been invented; the TV hadn’t made it over to India as yet; the battery cell was just about noticeable in devices like torches. Portable “transistor” radios weren’t around either. So the principal impact of loadshedding was that the room lights and ceiling fans went out. Air conditioners were for the very rich or the criminal, althogh occasionally you couldn’t distinguish between those two classes of human.

Labour saving devices had yet to make their mark on Indian society. The urban middle-class had refrigerators, but they were really glorified larders given how often we had power cuts. Anything cold was a luxury. [I used to go to the local Ice Rink and just sit in the shadows for a while just to cool off; I didn't know how to skate, and couldn't afford it anyway]. Ice was usually transported in large chunks on hand-carts called thelas, and kept cool by prudent and careful use of coverings made of hessian, with sawdust additionally on the exposed bits.

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There were no washing machines or dishwashers to be seen anywhere.  Some modicum of laundry service was available, though for the most part people would wash their clothes at home and perhaps hire the services of itinerant ironers.

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No fridges and no freezers, so no frozen food. No supermarkets, no pre-washed or cleaned or chopped or mashed anything. Everything was done by hand, fresh, on the day. By 7am you would hear the rumble of gigantic stone mortar/pestle devices as the herbs and spices of the day were prepared; the vegetable cleaning and chopping would go on in parallel. We didn’t have to worry about meat going off in the heat: we were vegetarians.

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For the first 23 years of my life, I was blissfully ignorant of at least one type of LSD. Labour Saving Devices.

And then I moved to the UK. To western civilisation. And wave after wave of opportunity to save my labour.

We live in interesting times. [Incidentally, whenever I use the phrase Western Civilisation I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi. Apparently he was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation. And he replied "I think it would be a good idea"].

Pretty much since the day I was born, we’ve all been growing fatter. As we moved from agriculture through manual labour in factories to more sedentary occupations, this was to be expected. We delayed some of the effects by using nicotine and caffeine in prodigious amounts, until they were both sent to the Naughty corner. More recently, sitting has become the new smoking and taken its place in Naughty Corner as well. And now, it looks like the fat-is-bad-sugar-is-good train of thought has crashed, with sugar banished to be with sitting and smoking.

But we’re still getting heavier. You just have to look around. And compare the society of today with society fifty, seventy, a hundred years ago. No rocket science.

Like most other people I know, I need to get fitter and more flexible and lose a chunk of weight. Occasional dieting has helped but the weight rarely stays off. And fitness and flexibility continue to be important. And I’m growing older.

So I’ve decided to get hooked on a new form of LSD.

Labour spending devices. Tools that make me work, rather than save me from work.

Having spent a decade and a half with the Jesuits, I recognise a corpore sano is not enough; I need a mens sana as well.

Which is why I am keen on making sure that what I do for my body I do for my mind as well. In both cases, I need to be sure that I am using tools wisely, to do things that keep my body and mind fit. Which is why I loved A Second Machine Age; which is why I loved Crap Detection; and which is why I’m installing a carpentry workbench in my den and learning more about gardening.

The new LSD. Spending labour. Wisely.

Posted in Four pillars .


A built-in, shock-proof crap detector

Have you read Neil Postman? You should. I first read Amusing Ourselves To Death in 1986 and have enjoyed re-reading it a number of times. Writing this post has reminded me to complete reading the rest of his books, there are still a couple I’ve yet to devour. I took a detour towards Postman’s oeuvre yesterday following a conversation yesterday with Howard Rheingold on crap detection. He reminded us that Ernest Hemingway originated the phrase, and I wanted to pin down precisely what Hemingway said, when and to whom. I’ve been fascinated by this theme ever since I first read John Allen Paulos on Innumeracy.

 

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Which led me on to Postman. Incidentally, Stephen Pozzi does a great job of summarising Postman’s “core message”:

Citizens living in a democracy, if they hope to keep that democracy, need to learn how to tell the difference between facts and bullshit

Pozzi provides us with the transcript for a speech given by Postman in 1969, where he says:

For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector”

 

Incidentally, the rest of the Pozzi piece is worth reading as well.

We live in an age when it’s only a matter of time before everyone and everything will become a node on “the network”, capable of publishing, capable of subscribing. People. Other living things. Computers. Other devices. Animate objects. Inanimate objects. Theoretical objects. Today, even a tweet can tweet (Three of your friends have read me and you haven’t. Would you like to read me now?)

Firehoses need filters. As Clay Shirky said, there’s no such thing as information overload, just filter failure. So we all spend time learning how to build better filters. Whether you look at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Salesforce, the message is: Bring me the firehose. All four of those organisations now have stream-filter-drain principles deeply embedded in what they do.

As firehoses become manageable streams, people find themselves wanting to “live in the stream”, with the ability to respond to and act on real-time information. People also want to choose when, where and how they get to that information. Not surprisingly, “feed first” and “mobile first” become important mantras. No business can survive operating at a speed that’s slower than the environment in which it operates. The platforms of the past were monolithic in design, focused as they were on driving unit cost reduction by helping standardise processes: they didn’t have to worry about the cost of change. Today’s platforms have to be based on ecosystem models, small pieces loosely joined, ensuring that change can be compartmentalised and controlled at affordable time and cost levels. They start having semi-permeable membranes around them: APIs to extract information from the feed, “publishers” to drop information into the feed.

All this is why, ever since Dreamforce ’13 and the launch of Salesforce1, I’ve been talking, presenting and writing about platforms as ecosystems and the stream-filter-drain construct. And filters.

In my recent series on filters, I spent time writing about the importance of publishing responsibly. Checking facts. Attributing sources. Things every decent journalist knows how to do while blindfolded and hogtied.

We’re all publishers now. We’re not just publishers, we’re also disseminators of information, at speed and at scale.

We all need to get better at being able to assess the likelihood of something we’re presented with being true. [The current crisis in the Ukraine is a classic everyday example of how challenging it is to know what the facts are. Which is why, when I gave my TED Talk on Information seen from the perspective of Food, I mused about whether we should soon start labelling the Fact Content of all information].

Remember this story?

 

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Alvaro Munera. Conscience-stricken in the middle of his last fight. Decides to give it all up.

Great story.

Completely false.

The photo above is not of Munera. The torero shown in the photo is actually executing a bullfighting move called desplante. We may all love the story that says Munera had his Road to Damascus moment as depicted in the photo above; that doesn’t make the story true. While Munera did “convert” his views and become a campaigner for animal rights and against bullfighting, that still doesn’t make the story above any truer.

There are many other examples, but I won’t bore you with them.

Everyone’s talking about Big Data nowadays. It used to be about three Vs: Volume, Velocity and Variety. And then there were four. Veracity joined the set. A little while later, number five arrived: Value. By the time I finish writing this, I’m sure that Vs 6-10 are in gestation somewhere. And soon to travel the world at speed.

While all that happens, let’s try and keep an eye on one of those Vs: Veracity. It’s probably more important than all the other Vs put together.

When I came to England in 1980, I came across many sayings and idiomatic expressions that hadn’t quite made it to the Calcutta I grew up in. One of my favourites was “Where there’s muck, there’s brass”. This is as true for the digital world as it has been for the analog one.

As the Hemingway and Postman quotes suggest, we’re all going to have to learn to become better crap detectors, whether it’s because we want to be better writers, better citizens, or even just because we want to make our little dent in the universe.

Which is why I am delighted to learn that Howard Rheingold is working with his students to build and share a Guide to Crap Detection Resources. If you want to help, do let Howard know.

Posted in Four pillars .


Making little dents in the universe

We attract a different type of person—a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe. We are aware that we are doing something significant.

That’s what the late Steve Jobs said, in an interview in February 1985. Even those who aren’t Jobs fanboys would tend to agree that he made a dent in the universe. A big one. And maybe a ding as well. I say that, as I write this post on my iMac while my iPhone and iPad charge, and while I listen to music playing … on iTunes. I say that while remembering why I called myself @jobsworth on Twitter, why I use the mail address [email protected], and why I call myself jobsworth pretty much everywhere else.

He made a big dent.

Not everyone gets a chance to make that big a dent. Which is why it’s important to remind ourselves what Steve actually said, about attracting people who want to make a little dent in the universe.

Little dents matter. Everyone should be given an opportunity to make his or her own dent; even though the outcomes will vary in size, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, what matters is the opportunity. It’s part of what gives each of us our dignity.

It’s been something front-of-mind for me for some time now.

One day, when I was around 16 or 17, I went to school in a rickshaw.

 

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It wasn’t the first time I’d been in one. But that was the last time I rode as a passenger in a hand-pulled rickshaw.

It had been raining, and the roads had flooded, a common occurrence those days in Calcutta. I was meant to turn up for some soccer training. When I got to the school, Fr Bouche (Fr Camille Bouche, SJ. Prefect of Discipline, friend, mentor, role model and father figure to thousands of St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta) saw me disembark. And that was that. Redfaced, brows furrowed, he enquired as to what I thought I was doing. So I told him. It was flooded. I was in a hurry. His brows knitted further; impending storms gathered on his forehead. And I’ve sprained my ankle. A bit. I tailed off. Looked at him. The storms were gathering force. I made my last, desperate, throw of the die. Don’t they need to earn their money somehow?

 

 

The storms broke. His voice turned to ice. So you’re worried about him? Next time, give him the money and walk. He turned on his heel and walked away.

He didn’t speak to me for a couple of days. A few evenings later, sometime after school, he saw me and beckoned. He was in his civvies by then, he’d always change out of his cassock into a short-sleeved shirt and normal trousers. And we walked around the quadrangular playing field as we talked. He talked, I listened. The essence of what he said was a variant on “teach a man to fish, don’t give him fish”. That every person should have a right to dignity in life, in what they did, in how they did it. That it was the duty of people with privilege, people like him and me, to ensure that everyone had that right. That I should never do anything that robs a man of dignity.

Fast forward twenty years. I was home, watching something on TV. Someone, I think it may have been Sir John Harvey-Jones, was in conversation with an Indian maharajah. I’ve looked around your empire, your highness, and it looks like you have about 6000 workers you don’t really need. I see. What will they do? You don’t understand, they’re superfluous, they don’t actually produce anything valuable to you. You don’t need them. I see. I understand. But if they don’t work for me, tell me, what will they do? What they do for me is part of what gives them meaning in life.

And the conversation with Fr Bouche came back to me.

Fast forward another twenty years. By then I’d joined Salesforce.com, I was at our annual customer conference, Dreamforce. [Have you ever been? You should. It's hard to describe. Part tech conference, part political convention, part music festival, part none of the above. It's like nothing I've ever experienced]. On stage we had Jeff Immelt and Colin Powell, in conversation with Marc Benioff. One of the topics that came up was the Middle East. One of them, I think it was Immelt, said that a key component of any solution to the Middle East was “jobs”. This time with a small j. Employment. And the dignity and meaning that comes with it. Everyone else agreed.

And the conversation with Fr Bouche came back to me.

Throughout the intervening forty years, I’ve been thinking about enfranchisement and equality of opportunity and the dignity that comes with employment. Most of that time, I’ve been working with information and with the technologies used to create and disseminate that information and the insights that could be gained. Whatever I did, I couldn’t get away from the nagging feeling that:

the tools I was working with were fisherman’s tools, that people could learn to fish by using them

My mother’s father was a teacher all his life; he retired as Professor of Chemistry at Madras Christian College in Tambaram, near Madras, when I was in my teens. My father, and his father before him, were journalists, but of an old-fashioned kind. They saw their profession as one that informed and educated and gave people options. So they too were teachers, but in their own way.  Born into a Brahmin Hindu family in 1950s Calcutta, I was brought up to respect my teachers. Spending fifteen years in a Jesuit institution made it part of my DNA.

It was natural that I would view education as a panacea, a silver bullet. And, ever since I entered the world of information technology thirty-three years ago, it became natural that I saw IT as a means of extending the reach of education.

Over the last two decades or so something else happened: I began to appreciate the power of platforms, something that would come as no surprise to regular readers. Which is why I wrote these posts at the start of the year. As I’ve understood more about platforms I’ve understood more about how they can empower and enfranchise, the role they can play in enabling and releasing human creativity. How that in turn gives people the chance to make little dents in the universe. How that dent-making gives people dignity and purpose.

I joined salesforce.com for a number of reasons. Meeting Marc Benioff was one of them: it’s not often you get to work for a real visionary. Working with people who knew how to build a platform business was one of them: before I joined the company, my sense was that the heart of salesforce.com was a multitenant platform, remarkable in its design and power; that the “clouds” were in effect just reference implementations of that platform. There were other, smaller reasons as well, in terms of the challenge the role represented, how talented my colleagues were, early exposure to Chatter. All these reasons were necessary but not sufficient.

What swung it was learning about the Salesforce Foundation and the 1:1:1 model.

I loved the idea that the founding fathers of the company felt that giving back was an integral part of the ethos of the firm, built into the core operating principles as “firstfruit” rather than upon retirement. I loved the idea that a sizable percentage of customers were from the nonprofit sector, that they had access to the platform without charge, that they could scale access at deep discounts. I loved the idea that employees were encouraged, nay expected, to commit their time, their money, their talent, to nonprofits. I loved the idea that every Dreamforce, everyone got involved in helping this happen. Nonprofits. Partners. Customers. Employees. Everyone. I loved the idea that all this was underpinned by a commitment to match funds raised.

So I joined the company.

Fast forward to today. This weekend, as we celebrate the company’s 15th “birthday”, employees were encouraged to roll their sleeves up and volunteer time with Foundation causes and customers all over the world. [For example, a horde of colleagues turned up at The Animal Sanctuary in Dorney, not far from where I live. Cleaning out the stables and pens. Building fresh shelters. Grooming the animals. And building a very large, very hot bonfire. Any guesses as to which bit attracted me?]

After spending the morning in Dorney, I came back for a video call that I’d been really looking forward t, for quite some time.

Why? Let me backtrack a bit. During my early years at Dresdner Kleinwort, I had the opportunity to make regular forays into what was then referred to as “central and eastern Europe”, doing due diligence on planned engagements, acquisitions, flotations. While doing that, one of the things I kept noticing was that there was incredible ingenuity in the midst of deprivation, particularly when it came to the use of information and communications technologies. More willingness to experiment. More tolerance for failure, for learning from failure. More acceptance of iteration, of agile working. More propensity to use opensource and even to contribute to opensource.

Necessity was their mother of invention. They made do. They contrived. They jerry-rigged. They found a way.

Some years later, a close friend, “MR” Rangaswami (he ain’t heavy, and he’s not my brother either) introduced me to Prof CK Prahalad, who made me familiar with his Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid thinking, and then intrigued me further with his views on “reverse innovation“.

More recently, Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson started shaking other parts of my tree, looking at the Second Machine Age  and its impact on employment and society.

Dignity of work, in the context of eradicating poverty. Equality of opportunity, seen through the lens of inclusion and connectedness. Platforms and the leverage they represented. Innovation through necessity and what was happening with reverse innovation. The advance of technology and the jobs that get created, the jobs that disappear. Hmmm.

You can see where this is going. I started looking for examples of Salesforce Foundation customers using the platform to develop tools that would in turn empower others.

I wanted to find examples of people all over the world being able to make dents in the universe. Little dents, but dents nevertheless. Dents that gave them meaning and dignity.

On to this afternoon’s call. I spoke to Steve Wright (VP Poverty Tools and Insights), Steve Anderson (CTO) and Elaine Chang (Product Manager, Global Market Development) at Grameen Foundation. [Love their tagline: Connecting the World's Poor to their Potential].

They told me about TaroWorks. An Android app built on top of a force.com application on the salesforce platform. Empowering people working in the field in nonprofits to measure what they’re doing, how they’re doing, what impact they’re having. What’s working, what’s not working. The screenshots below will give you a sense of the application.

 

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For some years now I’ve been hearing about the challenges to do with nonprofit fieldwork in terms of measurement, benchmarks and comparisons. When you make little dents, knowing that you are making a dent is important. As Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi reminded us in Flow, people work at a higher level of performance when they work on things that stretch them, but there are at least two other characteristics needed. They need to know what the job is, where it fits into the overall scheme of things. And they need to know how they’re doing, who can help them. Definitions, feedback loops and coaching.

So today, on the 15th anniversary of salesforce.com, I was encouraged. Encouraged about things that have mattered to me for a very long time.

Today I saw people building platforms and ecosystems that would help others learn to fish. That would help others create environments where they can find dignity in what they do.

I think there are already around 1.4 million developers on the salesforce platform. When I see examples like TaroWorks, I realise that the next 1.4 million may come much sooner.

All making dents in the universe. Little dents. Dents with dignity.

Posted in Four pillars .


But they are useless. They can only give you answers

Photo credit: The Museum Of Ridiculously Interesting Things

So said Pablo Picasso, in conversation with William Fifield, speaking about the “enormous new mechanical brains or calculating machines” we would later refer to familiarly as “computers”. I found this out in the nicest possible way, having come across the quotation while reading Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, reviewed here by me yesterday. The quotation, on page 187, referred me to the Notes at the back of the book, which then led me to a wonderful site, Quote Investigator, and to this piece there.

That in turn reminded me of Mr Bhowmick. I think he was Mr J.B.Bhowmick, but I can’t be sure. He was the last Maths teacher I had at school. He was the one who was going to guide our class of forty 15- and 16-year-olds through the last two years of mathematics in school, leading to what was known then as Senior Cambridge. On his first day with us, he promised to award the Nobel Prize, personally, to anyone who actually managed to fail “Add Maths”, more formally referred to as Mathematics With Additional Mathematics. That set the tone for the rest of his lessons.

A few weeks later he walked into class and asked “So what’s the maximum number of electrons in the nth orbit of an atom?”. Immediate groans and sounds of derision. Doesn’t he know this is Maths class and not Physics class? A few hands went up. He pointed at one. 2n squared. At which point he said “Now prove it.” Again, a few hands went up. One was chosen, who proceeded to walk up to the blackboard, grab the chalk proferred, and “prove” it….. inasmuch as proof by induction is proof. And he walked back, smugly, to his seat. Job done.

And then. And then something very important happened.

“From now on, you will earn my respect, not by the answers you give, but by the questions you ask”.

The game had changed. Giving the right answer was easy. Asking the right question…now that was interesting. He had us from then on. In his own way, Mr Bhowmick had introduced us to the