On being not alone: some Sunday morning thoughts

 

 

 

 

 

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I never tire of using Gerald Waller’s iconic photograph of an orphan boy with his first pair of new shoes in 1946. Thank you Gerald Waller.

Only the very hard of heart would not be touched when faced with a newly orphaned baby or child.

Only the very hard of heart would not be touched when faced with someone who’s lost a partner having spent their lives together.

We understand something about the importance of being not alone. And yet, in between the baby-state and the octogenarian-state, we spend a lot of time and energy fighting for personal independence.

When I was young, I was told repeatedly that both organisations as well as organisms went through stages of maturity. People, families, neighbourhoods, companies, even countries, went through a dependent stage, an independent stage and an interdependent stage. Interdependence was seen as a sign of maturity.

As an adolescent at the time, it made complete sense to me. I could see the need for me to flex my independent muscles, understand my bearings, my abilities, my limits, and then to “settle down” in peace and harmony with all around me. So I thought of interdependence not just as a sign of maturity, but as a form of “collective independence”.

For adolescents, being with other people is hard, harder than others would find it. Any form of agreement with others was hard, especially if the others were older people.

 

It’s what Carly Simon wrote about in The Carter Family:

Grandma used to nag at me to straighten up my spine
To act respectful and read good books
To take care of what was mine
I hated being criticised and asking her permission
So what if her advice was wise, It always hurt to listen

Cat Stevens, now Yusuf, expressed similar views in a litany of songs: Father and Son, Wild World, Where Do The Children Play et al. [Many years later, I would learn that many of the songs in Tea For The Tillerman and in Teaser and the Firecat were written as part of a single work, Moonshadow, telling the story of youth and love across barriers of age and culture].

Photo below courtesy of Simon Fernandez. [A rare example of Che-wearing-a-Che-T-shirt IRL].

Yusuf-2009

Getting agreement from a group is hard. That’s why teenagers are often seen lolling around, apparently disenchanted with everything in life, unable to articulate what they want to do next.

It’s not just about teenagers. If, as an adult, you’ve ever tried to get a group of people to agree to do something — anything — you know the challenge. Organising a golf day. Going to see a film. As soon as you need to gain the support of many people, even organising a picnic is no longer a picnic.

It’s not just about groups. The best marriage talk I’ve ever attended was given by a woman called Faith Forster at the wedding of some close friends. She asked us to imagine that every one of us was a house. Getting engaged meant becoming a semi-detached house. Getting married meant converting that semi into something larger and deeper and potentially more wonderful. But it took time. Working out the plans. Breaking through the walls. Choosing which rooms you’d merge to form a bigger one, which ones you’d choose to retain in preference to the other choice, which ones you’d keep both of, which ones you’d do away with. It took time, mess, compromise, agreement. All things that a true covenant relationship can deal with.

I remember the first time I learnt that every town had its own time, set by nature. That the very idea of a universal time came out of the need for synchronisation, something that the Industrial Revolution hastened via the steam engine and steam trains. As soon as you want to connect two things you need some basis for synchronisation. Common languages, standards, protocols. These ideas have nothing to do with computers or digital or data. Just about connections, analogue or otherwise.

medium_Robin Chase

Someone I have a lot of time and respect for, someone I’m privileged to call a friend, Robin Chase, wrote an article in the FT recently, headlined Disrupted transport will work better for us in the end. She has a new book coming out in a few months, which I’ve pre-ordered. I’d recommend you do the same].

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One of the themes that Robin drives through the article (pardon the pun) is how the evolution of the digital age moves us from dealing with individual frictions to dealing with collective frictions. As with the car, in almost any walk of life, there is far greater value to be had in the removal of frictions faced by collectives. It’s a theme that has been tackled by people like Howard Rheingold, Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky, providing different yet complementary perspectives on this phenomenon. I am really looking forward to hearing Robin’s views in detail.

While on the subject of collective action. I loved seeing this video of Michael Green at EF2015. A classic example of how digital technology allows peers to work together to remove a particular set of frictions.

[An aside. I find myself unduly cynical about what’s happening with Net Neutrality over in the US, and almost as cynical about what’s happening with it here in Europe. It may appear that the tides are turning towards the support of neutrality on one side of the pond while leaning unexpectedly the other way on the other side of the pond. All I can say is “regulatory capture”: there is a reason why societies came up with laws to do with antitrust and anti-monopolies and anti-restrictive-trade-practices ; these laws appear to mean very little in a digital world. That must change. That will change.]

Being alone or being not alone, these are no longer choices. Many of the problems and issues we face as mankind require collective action. The tools for collective action exist and continue to be refined. Society everywhere is being redefined as a result, and it is normal and natural for incumbent structures of power to complain and to try and stave off the redefinition.

Being not alone used to be a state that some people chose because they could. Being alone used to be a state that some people chose because they could. And some didn’t have choice as to the state they were in.

But all that has changed.

Being not alone is no longer a statement of choice. It is an imperative. And one that can bear wonderful outcomes for humanity.

Be Not Alone

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I became a grandfather for the first time last Friday night, and had the opportunity to welcome grandson number one Elijah Fenn to planet earth. One of the happiest moments of my life. It mattered to me in ways that may not make sense to others: my father never lived to see any of his grandchildren; his father never lived to see any of my siblings. My mother’s mother didn’t live to see me or my siblings either. There was, for many years, a fatalistic part of me that felt that I wouldn’t live long enough to see my grandchildren.

And so it mattered to me.

I felt blessed to have been beside my wife at the birth of all three of our children, to have been able to hold each of them in my arms shortly after birth. I felt blessed to have been able to walk my eldest child down the aisle at her wedding in 2013.

And I felt blessed to have been at the hospital shortly before Eli was born, and to be able to see him and hold him in my arms. Not every gets these opportunities in life. And I remain intensely, immeasurably grateful for them. [I write this with a wry smile as I hear Eli give his lungs a workout downstairs].

At a time like this, it’s not surprising that I find myself reflecting on the world Eli will inhabit, the world my children inhabit today, and how it differs from the world I came into more than 57 years ago.

Every generation has its wars and its peaces, its political and social and economic triumphs as well as its disasters. Every generation bears its trophies and its scars from such times. Every generation has its reasons to rebel and its ways of rebelling, in appearance, in art and culture, in habits and in fashions. Every generation has its legal highs and its places to inhabit away from the rest of mankind. There is something cyclical about much of this, something that each generation will face for itself.

There are things that remain constant in each generation, even if the words change, even if the context changes. Those are not the things that concern me as I reflect.

What concerns me is to do with the things that haven’t stayed constant, where the change is material in itself.

We’re living longer. We’re growing fatter. We’re consuming resources less sustainably. Inequality is increasing. People polarise more quickly and more extremely. Intolerance is growing.

And we’re becoming more alone.

If there is one thing I would wish for Eli, for his siblings-to-be and for his cousins-to-be, if there’s one thing I wish for his parents and for their siblings (two of whom are my other children), it is this:

Be not alone.

I left India in 1980. I was 23 then. In all that time I’d never even heard of an “old people’s home”. The India I left had a different word for it. Home. With family. First the parents looked after the children, then helped with their children, and then it was time for them to be looked after by their children.

By the time I was 15 I’d met one divorced person. Just one. And when I left India that number had grown out of all proportion. It had doubled. To two.

I knew a few people who lived on their own. They were bachelors. Yes, all male. Mainly between 21 and 30. There was one exception, my next-door neighbour, who was in his sixties.

I was brought up to believe that family mattered. That friends mattered. That these were covenant relationships. Something I’ve written about before. Many times.

I left India at a difficult time, leaving family behind, believing that what I was doing was best for me and for my family. For a few years it was hard. But I’m grateful for how time and distance have been headed off at the pass, how I feel close to my mother, my siblings and my extended family, as close as I’ve ever felt.

Be not alone.

Regular readers of this blog would know that I’ve stayed close to my schoolmates, many of whom I will have known for 50 years by this time next year. We’re spread out all over the world, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting perhaps 25 regularly, and another 40 or 50 occasionally. There’s a smaller group of us who went to university together, and social networks have helped us re-engage at greater levels. When we meet, the years roll back as if they were but seconds.

With the advent of tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, the networks that were spawned on e-mail have strengthened. It now means that I’m in touch with a good number of my colleagues, people I’ve worked with sometime over the past 35 years. We meet occasionally, and yes the years roll back.

Be not alone.

When I moved to London for the first time, I was mortified to see that some people didn’t even know their neighbours. The closer to central London I got, the more this happened. In contrast, the last time I went to Calcutta with my family, I spent time with neighbours I’d grown up with, whom we’re still in touch with. We were in a group that spanned age and creed and time; yet somehow we found ourselves celebrating Christmas, with a large roast ham, with Hindu and Sikh family and friends, hosted by a Jewish family. Yes, that’s Calcutta for you.

We were in Goa just before Christmas, and the daughter of one of our other neighbours turned up there; she knew my sister would be there. They’d grown up together. It meant something. I’ll probably be in NYC in a week’s time. And I’ll be spoilt for choice if I get a spare evening. Schoolmate? Tick. Neighbour? Tick. Erstwhile colleagues? Tick.

Be not alone.

No man is an iland intire of itselfe. I read advertisements on railway stations telling me that there are people in the West who go weeks on end without speaking to anyone. And it saddens me. Over the past decade, I’ve seen more and more reports about possible connections between Alzheimer’s and loneliness. And it saddens me. We don’t know much about depression or other mental illnesses, but what we do know points towards the role played by loneliness.

Settlement man lived and died within a short distance of where he was born, and this has largely been the case for millennia. Migrations happened, but they tended to be involuntary: there were climatic, environmental, economic or political reasons, and even then the migrations happened in groups, more exodus than exit.

The Industrial Age demolished migration costs, and for the last 200 years or so man’s ability to migrate has increased unrecognisably. It became “normal” for people not to know their neighbours, to want to live alone, to live “secret” lives, with no accountability to anyone. One-person dwellings became more common. One-person anything became common.

Then the Information Age came along and demolished connection costs, and we’ve been in a renaissance ever since. People are rediscovering the social fabric that was torn beyond belief during the interim.

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Vint Cerf has been warning of a “digital dark age” where many of the artefacts we trust computers to look after disappear.

Leonard Nimoy’s last tweet, not long before he died a few days ago, is already the stuff of legend:

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Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Whose memory? The memory of our families, our friends, our colleagues, the people we live in covenant relationship with.

We live in times when the art of conversation could itself die out, when some of the practices that made us human fade away. Practices like the oral passage of knowledge and history and values from generation to generation, via stories on your grandparent’s knee or by the fireside or underneath the stars.

I’m having to learn a lot about what it means to be private in a public world, what privacy means in today’s age. Reading the work of people like Sherry Turkle and Daniel Solove and danah helps me understand some of it. But I spend as much time as I can seeking to understand community rather than solitude. I enjoy solitude. But that’s quite different from loneliness.

Be Not Alone.

That’s what I wished for myself when I was in dark times. That’s what I wish for those close to me, my wife, my children, my family and my friends.

That’s what I wish for my grandson. And for the generations that his arrival signals.

Be Not Alone.

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.

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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:

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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.