Of predictions and predicaments

It’s that time of year when people write predictions for the year to come. I’ve done that, many times. If predictions for are what you’re looking for, then you’ve been brought here on false pretences. This post is about my predicament.

I’m looking for help. I’m looking for you to tell me people to go listen to, books and articles to read, places to go, things to do, anything that would help me learn more about my predicament.

Let me try and describe it as best I can.

My grandfather said something very depressing to me when I was around 12. He told me that my generation would be the one with peak longevity, that life expectancy would start to decline in years to come, probably for the first time in recorded history.

Friends of mine have been saying something else that’s very depressing. Again, for the first time in recorded history, it would appear that you have to be rich to be thin.

Longevity, health, nutrition, these are some of the ways we set out the problems of our age. Sure, every age has its problems; our ancestors had theirs; our descendants will have theirs. I shall resist the temptation to say “if we have descendants”. Suffice it to say our descendants will have theirs.


Each generation’s problems can appear to be unique, and perhaps they are. Our particular set comprises water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Perhaps they’re not that unique after all.

What’s unique about our generation is that the costs of movement and of communications have dropped precipitously, and continue to drop. Humankind’s propensity to migrate and to connect may have always been there, but that propensity has been constrained by barriers of cost and affordability.

That is less true now. Humans are able to connect, to communicate and to move in ways that our predecessors could only have dreamt of.

These two phenomena affect everything we do, and they’re both accelerating, with exponential growth in their effect. Some people call this “the second half of the chessboard”.

Everything is affected. Everything.

We can’t think of our world in isolation, it’s connected. To other objects in space, not just in our solar system but beyond. We’re slowly learning what that connectedness means. Breakthroughs in our understanding of physics a century ago are helping us do that. And that’s affecting the way we think of ourselves, our origins, our purpose.

We can’t think of the countries we live in in isolation, they’re connected. Which puts a great deal of pressure on our political and economic and financial and social systems. As you would expect, the pressure is telling, and major cracks are showing in all these systems. There’s a natural temptation to “contain the problem”, to introduce greater and greater frictions, to build and extend walls to contain human, intellectual and financial capital within legacy frameworks. Those responses are failing, and there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth as a result. Political, economic and social systems are showing signs of extreme instability, and “failed states” have become more common.

We can’t think of the way we live in isolation, in terms of what we produce and what we consume, when, where and how. We’re connected. Everything we do has consequences that affect others. Water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Here we go again.

We can’t think of our own bodies the way we did, as we learn more about the genome and about the biome. The way we inherit and pass on physical characteristics is something we continue to investigate and refine our understanding of.

We can’t even think of our own minds the way we used to, as we learn more about how ideas form and spread, how values take hold, how we form economic and social systems, how these evolve. Theories of group selection in this context are regaining momentum.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

Much of who we are and what we do is based around the individual. The way we think of ourselves. We use phrases like “no man is an island” and then appear to spend time making us into individual islands. If any part of the fabric of society exhibits group instincts we try and nullify them.

Our ideas of property are based around the individual. Our ideas of employment are based around the individual. Our ideas of happiness are based around the individual. Our ideas of privacy are based around the individual. Our ideas of capability are based around the individual. Our ideas of relationships are based around the individual. Our ideas of trust are based around the individual.

Our ideas of health, education and welfare are all based around the individual.

The internet of <choose the term du jour>.

Our ideas of everything are based around the individual.

And we’re learning that we are actually more connected in every dimension we can think of, and potentially getting more connected every day.

Hmmm. Something has to change.

So I want to learn more about networks and relationships. I want to learn more about what makes them tick. I want to learn about the data that all this throws off. I want to learn about the implications of all this.

That’s why I’m interested in web science.

Because I believe that it represents a possible way for us to deal with the problems of our generation.

And that’s where I need your help. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, and each day I realise how little I know. I want to accelerate my learning. You represent an amazing resource. You know things I don’t. Help me learn. I will share what I learn back here.

Have a great 2016.



holiday reading

Serious downtime is something I’ve grown to cherish more and more as I’ve grown older. I take care to ensure that as little as possible is planned into the downtime, other than to spend time with my family and with myself.

When it comes to my own time, there are two things I plan in detail. What I’m going to read. What I’m going to watch.

The watching bit is easy. As little as possible.

The reading bit takes a little more work, it’s something I start preparing for months in advance.

Some of you have asked me to share my holiday reading list, so here it is, in no particular order.

  1. Alice Roberts, The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being
  2. Lou Beach, 420 Characters
  3. Cervantes and Davis, The Complete Don Quixote
  4. Jeffery Pomerantz, Metadata
  5. Michael Pearce, The Mouth Of The Crocodile
  6. Jenkins, Ito and boyd: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era
  7. Ilan Stavans, Quixote: The Novel and the World
  8. Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings
  9. Weisman, The World Without Us
  10. Brunton and Nissenbaum, Obfuscation

I’m quite excited by the list. I’ve already started the Ilan Stavans, reading it for the first time. Amazing. The Wiener and Weismans are both second time around. I’ve skipped through Metadata as well as Obfuscation, this time I’ll be giving them a serious read, fountain pen and notebook ready to hand. The rest are virgin territory.

that holiday feeling




  • for those of you who celebrate it, a merry Christmas to you.
  • for those of you who don’t, the best of the holiday season to you.
  • for all of you, may 2016 be everything you want it to be.

I woke up early this morning. Habit. Not Christmas habit, everyday habit. And I did my usual thing, went downstairs, made a cup of tea, prayed, thought about the day and week to come.

And then I listened to some music. For some reason I wanted to listen to “old” Bee Gees so I did. Holiday was one of the songs I played. I love that song. Loved it when I heard it the first time. Loved it as a young man. Love it as a grandfather. But the lyrics? Judge for yourself.



The Sixties were like that. Insane lyrics, enough to make you cringe —  if you cared — if you were in a fit state to be able to care about things like lyrics. I couldn’t think about any form lyrical insanity without making a reference to Joe Cocker and his version of With a Little Help From My Friends. Now remember the lyrics in the original were simple and understandable — they had to be — McCartney and Lennon wrote it for Starr. The Cocker version is something else altogether, and makes it to the top of the pantheon of misheard lyrics, the patron saint of mondegreens.

I append the video below, but would exhort you not to watch it while trying to eat or drink anything, you could do yourself a serious injury and that wouldn’t be a good thing.



Staying on the subject of Joe Cocker, who sadly died this week last year, may he rest in peace. The video below is probably one of my favourite examples of cross-Atlantic collaboration. Cocker and Belushi doing Traffic and Mason.



And on that note, happy holidays.

Old friends…lost in their overcoats

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Lost in their overcoats. How I love that line.

An old friend, Abu, came over to see me some time ago. It was a very long time ago. 1971. I was 13. We were already old friends by then. I’d known him since early January 1966.

We still meet. We’ve kept in touch. We have dinner every now and then, especially when other school friends come through London. That happens a few times a year. Wherever we meet, whenever we meet, it’s like a gathering of the clans.

Minoo rolls into town every now and then, all the way from Tennessee. Vishnu from Singapore. Asani from New York. Vir from Dusseldorf. Ashok from the West Coast. Nishat from Calcutta.

And when one of them passes by, a small number of us gather. Pesi. Abu. Sumit. Shiel. Me.

Old friends. We will have known each other for fifty years next month. And we’re still in touch. Some sixty, seventy of us, going through our various rites of passage. Some of us are grandfathers now. Well, at least one of us. Me.

We’re in touch in many ways. Some via email. Some via Facebook. Some even via new-fangled things like Whatsapp. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the tools help us meet regularly IRL. And we roll back time and laugh and reminisce and break bread together.

Old friends.

Where was I? Oh yes, Abu dropped by, in 1971.  Came to our flat in Moira Street. Our home. The place I lived in from the age of 11 till I was 23. An open-door establishment where the average guest count must have been five. (Actually that’s not accurate. They weren’t guests. They lived there. Along with about twenty others. Most of the time there were only four or five of them in occupation. But sometimes they were all there. Accompanied, of course, by the other “permanent” residents of the flat. My parents. My siblings. Me. My cousins.)

So Abu came along, carrying goodies. One of his family members had just come back from the UK. With two new albums. Two. New. Albums. Albums that hadn’t been released in India as yet. (An aside. The family then staying one floor below were the Menons. The father, Bhaskar Menon, was on the verge of becoming “the first Chairman and CEO of EMI Music worldwide”. At the time he was running Gramophone Company of India, in Dum Dum, the plant that was responsible for pressing about a third of the music I grew up listening to. And yes, it’s the same Dum Dum that gave its name to the expanding bullet).

Back to Abu (whom I called Shaf, not Abu. All the males in his family turned out to be called Abu. At which point I realised that the name everyone used for him wasn’t his name, it was some sort of title.)

Abu and the two albums. One of which was Bookends. Which gave me the chance to listen to Old Friends for the first time. If you haven’t heard it, go Google it and correct that omission now.

Listening to it this morning, I was reminded of the ways in which I “discovered” music in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. What I thought I’d do is to spend a little time writing about some other old friends, some songs that have meant a lot to me over the years, songs that not everyone would have heard, songs that some of you may find worthwhile.

Here we go.

Today I Killed A Man. Originally a Cook-Greenaway song, covered by many people since. Brought to my attention by Bertie Da Silva, another old friend, someone I last saw in May. He’s now Dean of Arts at the college I went to, a great musician, a great guitarist. After listening to Bertie’s wonderful rendition (must have been sometime in 1976) I went to the record shop in Lindsay St, just off New Market, and bought what I thought was “the” single, a White Plains cover.

Oh mama, mama I’m so cold/I feel that I am quickly growing old/I hope that you are thinking of your son/’cause tomorrow morning I’ll be twenty-one.

Time For The Leaving. A fabulous song by a vastly underrated group. Magna Carta. How did I come by this? Oh yes. The man behind the counter at the record shop on Lindsay St, a place I spent inordinate amounts of time. He used to be very kind to me and not throw away the posters he received for new releases; every now and then, he’d give me a few, telling me what he thought of their music while he did so. And so it was with Magna Carta. He gave me an LP cover sized poster, I think it was a Polydor release, in red and black. Told me about the group. Played Time for the Leaving as well as Airport Song. I was hooked. Still am.

and the yesterday face/a picture with moustache
looks down to the ground from the mantelpiece
this is my world alone
the blue cotton dress and the man on the cross on the wall

Long Chain On. Peter, Paul and Mary. A Jimmie Driftwood story song done beautifully by PP&M. My uncle Mohan stayed with us for a while in the mid 1960s and introduced me to In The Wind, the seminal PP&M album. And Long Chain On is one of the best tracks. Along with all the others. It’s that kind of album.

Though he was tired and hungry/A bright light came over his face/He bowed his head in the moonlight/he said a beautiful Grace. 

Sometimes In Winter. Blood Sweat and Tears. The incredible voice of Steve Katz given some airtime for once. How came I by this? Friend Gyan Singh, who was to marry my cousin. Gyan, who sadly passed away a few years ago.  He had a little stash of brilliant albums he brought over for me to listen to, including some Mayall and some BST.

Sometimes in winter/I gaze into the streets and walk through snow and city sleet/Behind your room.

Prison Song. Graham Nash. From his second solo album, Wild Tales. One of my uncle Mohan’s friends managed to find a Taiwanese import, a flimsy knockoff version of the album and parked it with us for a while. We devoured it. Amazing.

Kids in Texas smoking grass/Ten year sentence come to pass/Misdemeanor in Ann Arbor/Ask the judges why.

The best of the festive season to all of you.

Why I won’t be buying a Kindle this Christmas


Not just this Christmas. Any Christmas.

Not just a Kindle either. I have nothing against Amazon, been buying books from them for decades.


They’re the reason I won’t be buying a Kindle.

People think books are about reading. And they’re right.

But it doesn’t stop there. Books are about a lot more than reading.

I’ve had a love affair with books ever since I can remember. If you’ve seen my TED talk Information Is Food you’d know that already.

You know when you fall in love with someone, it’s the beginning of a journey where you learn to appreciate more and more things about that someone. Little things that make them unique, their foibles, their idiosyncrasies. Their background and upbringing, the environment they grew up in; their family, their friends; the way they look when the light catches them from a particular angle. Everything.

When you fall in love with books, it’s a little bit like that.

I’ve been a passionate amateur collector of books now for over thirty years, and every year I learn something new, something about books that amazes me and delights me.

The book

To begin with it was all about the book. The plot. The characters. The journey the author took you on. Sometimes the book was part of a series, and you began to appreciate the characters and the settings more deeply, as the fondness of familiarity set in.

The binding

After a while I began to appreciate the way the book felt in my hands. How it was made. How it smelt. The paper used. The inks used. The fonts. The way the book was bound. The feel of the leather covering a well-bound, well-thumbed book. The way the pages were cut. I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into bookbinding, the tools used, the raw materials, the processes. There was a time when bookbinders actually signed their books, they took their craft that seriously. I still pay above the odds for a Bayntun Riviere bound book, and count a delightful Heath Robinson illustrated Don Quixote as one of that number.

The illustrations

Which brings me on to my next point. I have over two hundred and fifty different editions of Don Quixote. Not for the story, though it’s my all-time favourite. Not for the bindings, though some of them are works of art. But for the illustrations. If you’re interested in knowing more about Don Quixote illustrators, here’s a good resource.

Autographed and inscribed copies

I’ve had jobs that have allowed me quite a bit of international travel over the years, and wherever I’ve gone, I’ve tended to investigate two things. Two off-the-beaten-track things. Restaurants. Bookshops. Not the most famous ones, nor the most exclusive ones; the ones that had something different, something special, about them. Going to such bookstores has sometimes meant dropping in unexpectedly on a talk given by an author, often giving me the chance to get a personally autographed copy of their latest book.

With the advent of the internet, I could plan more, and that meant I could take my own copies along, or buy whole sets for signature. Decades of doing that has meant I now have a few thousand signed copies, many with their own tales to tell, where I met the author, where we went for dinner (that’s happened a few times!), what the talk was about. A whole story, encompassed in a signature.

Association copies

Books don’t just contain stories. Each individual book is also a story. Particularly when you’re dealing with books that have been around for some time, the provenance of the book can get interesting. The journey taken by each and every copy , who bought it, who read it, who sold it, where and when. So, over the years, I found myself gathering stories about the books rather than just buying the books. I wanted to buy books where I found the story of the book interesting. It was no longer enough to get an autographed copy, I wanted to get copies where the inscription meant something.

I’m a big fan of “Road” books, not just On The Road but Don Quixote, Baron Munchhausen, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Gulliver’s Travels, even the Bhagavad Gita. So, once I was bitten by the association copy bug, it was not enough to have a signed Pirsig. I managed to get my hands on Pirsig’s copies of Kerouac and of Baron Munchhausen. Later I managed to acquire Kerouac’s copy of Gulliver. Now if only I could get hold of Swift’s copy of the Ingenious Gentleman…..

It’s not just about the authors and the famous. I have a number of different copies of The Imitation of Christ going back over the years, even though I’ve given a few away. They’re all secondhand, well-thumbed, beautifully worn. Each has its story to tell, even if it’s all in your imagination.


Miniature books

A decade or so into collecting, I found my first miniature book. Not a pretend-book for a doll’s house. A proper working book, every word as in the original, set, printed, bound and sold just like any other book you would buy. But an inch tall with other proportions in keeping with that.

I was in heaven. Transported. Imagining what love went into making the book. Tears in my eyes. And soon I found myself drawn deep into the world of miniature books, the printers, the binders, the markets, the collectors.


I used to read a lot of comics and magazines when I was young, something I’ve written about before. The original Mad Magazine, the US edition, was one I enjoyed tremendously. One of the reasons I enjoyed it was the “Marginal Thinking Department” section, a set of tiny drawings by Sergio Aragones that were squeezed into the margins of the rest of the magazine.

So marginal notes were something I began to be interested. And then came Fermat’s Last Theorem and marginal jottings in books about Diophantine equations.

Yup, you guessed it. Soon I was collecting books about marginalia.

No Kindle for me

There are books about everything I’ve written about, and more. Books about bookbinders and bookbinding, about presses, about the paper used. Books about association copies. Books about illustrators and illustrations. Books about miniature books. Books about book collectors. Books about marginalia. Books about libraries.

Books about books. And the stories about the books.

And it’s not just books. Over the years I’ve gone off on all kinds of tangents, where I have squirrelled away statues and figurines to do with literary characters (mainly Don Quixote and Sancho Panza). I have paintings, illustrations, triptychs, tables, jewellery, wine bottles, toys. Merchandising from times when there were no videos or T-shirts. Letters, postcards, sketches, photographs.

The social objects that in themselves are stories about the books, the people who wrote them, the people who printed them, the people who bound them, the people who sold them, the people who bought them, the people who collected them, the people who read them.


They’re not just for reading.

They’re a world unto themselves.

They’re lovesome things, God wot. They’re things of beauty, joys forever.

How do I love books? Let me count the ways.