Saturday in the park

Saturday in the Park. Chicago. 1973. A wonderful song, I’m glad my brother Anant reminded me of it this morning. A serendipitous moment, because I was thinking of green spaces and walking.

I love walking. Those of you who know me would also know I’ve never learnt to drive. So walk I must. And walk I do.

I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, yesterday, with a bunch of people at MIT, discussing how platforms should be built. If you’ve been there, you’ll know it’s a walking city. A city where you can go practically anywhere, starting from anywhere, using your own two feet. Liberating for us non-drivers.

Other cities have that feel as well. For example, Manhattan can be a bit like that: if you have the time and the inclination, walking a hundred and twenty blocks can be an extremely enjoyable and satisfying experience.

I work in the City of London, and it’s the epitome of a walking City. The Square Mile. Compact, full of narrow alleys and almost-hidden places. Places like Postman’s Park, with its Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice (and a well-hidden almost-vintage geocache).



The City is full of places like Postman’s Park, where we can spend a little time in solitude, when we are least alone.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling extensively, and the city that has unnerved me the most is probably Los Angeles. A place where you feel naked if you’re not behind the wheel of a car, preferably a village-sized one. And yet it wasn’t always like that. I was delighted to read about the secret staircases there, hangovers from a carless past. Not all of them remain accessible, not all of them have been preserved, but enough remain to delight the rare walker.


A few days ago, I acquired an old map of Calcutta, the place I was born, the place my father was born, the place my family called home till 1980.


Looking at it, I realised it pretty much defined the locus of my life from 1957 to 1961, and from 1969 to 1980. Where I was born. Where I went to school. My university. Where my dad was born. Where he died. Where his dad died. Where I grew up. Where my family and friends grew up, lived. Where a few have, sadly, died.

The map is not all of Calcutta. But it’s where I walked. Even today I feel I know every street on this map, even the ones you can’t see, especially the ones you can’t see. That’s what nostalgia does to you.

What the map does very well is to depict the Maidan. What we used to consider the living, breathing lung of the city. A vast expanse of green where nothing permanent could be built, but for a few colonial exceptions.

Want to watch the sunrise? Go to the maidan. Walk in solitude? Go to the maidan. Support your football, cricket or hockey team? Same answer. Relax with friends and sample some of the most amazing street treats? Ditto. Somewhere to slink away in twilight? Your wish is my command.

I had the joy of many Saturdays in the park. And I cherish them still. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve wanted to be close to a park and close to a river. Because.

Because I wanted to go for a walk in the park. And I could. And it was enjoyable.

Generations to come may not have those options. Sometimes I’m not sure which will go first, parks or walking. The signs aren’t good for either.

Some of you will remember Joyce Kilmer and Trees. Me, I remember Ogden Nash.


Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 13.34.37


Get on that open road. Walk in solitude, where you are least alone. Spend Saturday in the park.


Of Theseus, Trigger and Test cricket

Have you watched Trigger’s Broom? If you haven’t, you’re a lucky person. Just wander over to your old-TV-episodes-watching vehicle of choice and indulge yourself.


An unforgettable episode from an unforgettable series. RIP Roger Lloyd Pack.

Trigger’s broom. 20 years. 17 new heads. 14 new handles. When does it stop being Trigger’s broom? That’s what John Sullivan wanted us to think about.

It’s been asked before, notably by Plutarch, one or two years before Sullivan. The Ship of Theseus Paradox. It’s worth reading the Wikipedia article to understand how philosophers have dealt with this question: When you replace every component of something, at what point does it stop being the original thing?

There’s a lot I don’t know. But there’s one thing I know.

When Test cricket is played by people wearing coloured pyjamas, I will stop watching.

That day may be coming close. Today I read that Australia and New Zealand have agreed to play a day-night Test this November.

I saw the headline. And went into Marmite mode as I prepared to read further. Day-night? Makes sense. Makes a lot of sense. No more needing to take time off work to attend the match. No more “going off for bad light”. Learning about evening dew rather than its morning equivalent.

Anything that’s alive has its own way of evolving, adjusting, growing, changing. Not just human beings and flora and fauna. But food, language, culture, even ideas.

So I’m all for change in cricket, and I’ve been a big fan of many of the changes. So when the book-length game became available in article form in 60 overs, then 50, I cheered. When the article-length game morphed into the T20 format, I cheered again. And took out debentures at Lord’s and at the Oval.

The late cut and the leg glance haven’t been replaced by the reverse sweep or the overhead paddle; instead, we can savour a greater variety of strokes. As players have become fitter, we see phenomena like the relay catch shown here involving Tim Southee and Karun Nair.

Yes, I’m all for change in cricket. Of course, some changes grate, because they’re still evolving. It’s good to see that umpires can now use technology to assist them in making decisions. It would be better if the blatant nonsense of “umpire’s call” was done away with. And even better still if there was choice in the tools used to track ball flight, bat contact and sound. Similarly, The Duckworth-Lewis Method is a good name for an Irish pop band, but complete codswallop when it comes to dealing with rain-shortened matches. Progress doesn’t come easily.

We’ve been changing Test cricket ever since we starting calling a class of international match a Test. Will there come a time when it’s a change too far, when Test cricket is no longer Test cricket?

I think there will. And sadly it may come soon.

Day-night Tests? Great. Pink balls? Still great.

Pink pyjamas?


That’s not cricket.

Not Test cricket.

Right now I feel we’ve been reprieved, the inaugural day-night Test is one where the wearing of whites is stipulated.

I hope it stays that way.



thinking about tolerance and opinion polls




Some years ago I wrote a few posts about the “adda” in Calcutta. Since then the term has a Wikipedia entry; there’s been an award-winning film made about the phenomenon (which you can watch here in its entirety, worth it for the music alone):

Even the New York Times covered the topic earlier this year: The Chattering Masses.

I loved addas. One of the reasons I loved them was that dissent was not just acceptable but often expected. There was a tolerance for different points of view, and we all learnt as a result.

We should never seek to prevent dissenting voices. It’s like taking painkillers that deal with the symptom of the pain and not the root cause: the dissent doesn’t go away, just its visibility.

Over a decade ago, we started experimenting with blogs and wikis where I worked; everyone was encouraged to participate. Soon after we began, thorny questions emerged about the way sales were credited and commissions paid. I was contacted by the powers-that-be to suppress the comments and to “have a word” with the questioners. I let the questions ride, educating the would-be objectors on the folly of driving dissent underground.

Today we live in a world of polarisation on many topics; politicians seek to engineer perennial re-election by gerrymandering us into returning districts and constituencies that are homogeneous, uncaring that they create Fergusons in their wake.

That polarisation creates extremes of behaviour, as far removed from the tolerance I was used to in Calcutta as is humanly possibly. If we look at the Obama re-election, the Scottish referendum and the recent UK general election there are some intriguing common elements:

  • the media and the pollsters kept describing the election as “too close to call”
  • at least one side of the argument took to violence in speech and sometimes in action: strong derogatory words and phrases were used, slogans daubed, missiles thrown; it became socially impossible to be seen as taking the other side
  • the result was something that “no one expected”

Pfui. As Nero Wolfe would have said.

Actually there were people who expected it. People like Nate Silver, trained to look at the facts holistically and in their entirety. Not emotion but data.

Why did most of the pollsters get it wrong? Because they didn’t allow for the driving of dissent underground. They didn’t allow for the effect of the screams and the bullying, the intolerance of at least one side.

Never drive dissent underground. The dissent doesn’t actually go away, it just disappears from view and becomes more powerful.


Why you should read Peers Inc



Photo (and associated recipe) courtesy


I used to be a vegetarian.

Growing up in a Brahmin Hindu household in Calcutta, that meant potatoes and chapatis and daal and dahi (thayir) as my staple meal. Of course I had rasam and sambar with rice; of course I had mixed-vegetable delicacies like avial; and occasionally I would even cheat and include breakfast or tiffin dishes like idli and dosai and upma. And chillies. Chillies with everything. Lots of chillies.

I was in heaven.

One day, around 45 years ago, at a friend’s birthday party, all that changed. I had the most wonderful vegetable samosa. Turned out there was a reason why I found it that wonderful. It wasn’t vegetarian. I loved it. And so I began my sojourn as an omnivore. With chillies, of course.

I was in heaven.

Today, it looks very likely that I will become a vegetarian again. Not for reasons of spiritual belief or taste or health or personal affordability. It’s for an altogether different, serious reason.


Fresh water.

In common with those of you over fifty, I’ve thought more about my diet and nutrition for the past decade or so. Much of what I’ve been reading tends to reinforce the Michael Pollan mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

Also in common with many of you, I’ve been concerned about climate change and what I should do about it, how to deal with my personal and petty hypocrisies in that context as an inhabitant of this earth. Which is how I landed up reading about sustainable nutrition, starting with Jonathan Safran Foer’s lesser-known book Eating Animals.

I was travelling back from San Francisco recently, and had the good fortune to sit next to someone who worked on sustainable nutrition as her day job. Which meant, unlike me, she really knew something about the subject. And she confirmed my fears: if we continue as we are, we will hit the fresh water wall long before we hit the climate change wall.

Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink may be a rime for our times and not just for ancient mariners.

Climate change and water. Two thorny problems that are going to worsen unless we learn to work together across nations and cultures and geographies, across social and economic classes, independent of our political and religious persuasions and beliefs.

These are just two of the biggies: others on the list include nutrition, health and wellbeing. All these in turn then have a whole slew of interrelated topics ranging from GM crops through to hydraulic fracturing.

When I was a teenager my grandfather told me that I might belong to the generation of “peak longevity” and I laughed at him. I don’t any more.

That’s part of the reason why I spend so much time looking into a wide interconnected area that covers platforms, architecture, education, organisation, communities, collaboration, collective intelligence, “emergence”, innovation, knowledge management, data and analytics, visualisation, search, identity, open source, open data, the internet, intellectual property, privacy, sharing, altruism, behavioural economics, co-evolution, group selection. That’s why I’m fascinated by the very notion of Web Science.

It’s a complex multi-layered subject. I shall resist the temptation to call it “nuanced”, having had to fight off a grimace when I hear others use that word in similar contexts.

Which is where Robin Chase’s new book Peers Inc comes in.


I know Robin quite well, and I’ve had the chance to spend time chatting over what she’s been writing about while she wrote it. And as a result I’ve been really looking forward to getting my hands on the book. So much so that when it arrived yesterday, I read through it in one long occasionally-interrupted sitting.

I’m glad I did so. Because I’m going to be reading it again, very soon. Adding to the pencil-marks already in there, annotating here and there. I found it fascinating.

An aside about reviewing books. I’ve tended to avoid summarising a book while reviewing it; instead, I try and explain why I like a book, referring to what it contains as needed but not actually detailing that content. Some of you may prefer to read a summary, in which case I will have failed you.

Peers Inc is fascinating firstly because it forms a bridge, a nexus, connecting many disparate threads, covering the “wide, interconnected area” I spoke of a few paragraphs ago. [If you want a bibliography of books to read in this context, then the one at the end of this book is a good place to start. If you want more then feel free to DM me @jobsworth on Twitter].

The most important bridge it covers is one that covers the Peers and the Inc, the essence of the title. Too often, dialogue in this space decays into dissonance. The usual polarisation of Big Bad Corporate and Pinko Utopian Treehugger, a debate which ends with everyone losing. This time the story ends differently.

Robin converts this continuous conflict, using everyday examples, into a collaborative framework where individuals and institutions can work harmoniously together. We’ve all been used to a Centralise What Is Common Federate What is Different approach in many parts of life; what the book does is to provide us an elegant yet practical way of dealing with the tension, all in the context of a hyperconnected world.

The book shows us, through a number of diverse examples, how platforms with industrial characteristics (representing the Inc) create value in partnership with talented people (the Peers) by making use of “excess capacity”. Robin calls these the “building blocks”.

George Gilder used to say that every economic era is characterised by its own unique abundances and scarcities; to succeed, businesses must make use of the abundances as well as the scarcities. Peers Inc frames “sharing” as “tapping into excess capacity”, a liquefaction of locked-up assets that allows value to be released and accreted. This is an intriguing construct, allowing for further consideration of the “excess”. What happens if someone makes capacity available sacrificially, when there was no excess to speak of? It is still sharing, but then it moves towards David Sloan Wilson’s views on altruism. [I am now part way through reading that for a second time, fascinating].

There is then a lot of rich detail on “execution” : what to consider when building platforms, how to identify excess capacity, how to attract peers, how miraculous things happen when these three come together. Those of you who are familiar with Sangeet Paul Choudhry’s and his colleagues’  work on Platform Thinking will find some encouraging connections; there are similar tangents with the works of Schmalensee and Evans on multi-sided markets. What’s exciting is that Robin looks at all this with a fresh perspective, one that combines the power of individuals and of institutions.

I was particularly taken with the way the book deals with the value of peer activity, how peers speed up innovation. Visions of Doc Searls wandering around as a sage incanting his NEA mantra “Nobody owns it, Everyone can use it, Anyone can change it”. A lot of people have written about platforms before; what this book does is to explain the symbiosis with peer activity really well.

The third section, on transforming our future, is where I did the most scribbling. How to take the ideas in the first bit and the lessons in the second bit to try and make an impact on our lives, on those of our children, and on those of our children’s children. [Having recently become a grandfather, this means a lot to me personally].

It’s written as if it was a challenge to the reader. Ask not what your world can do for you. Ask what you can do for your world, especially for the generations to come. That’s my paraphrase, so don’t blame the author for it.

Which is why, once I understood Robin’s climate change motivation, I found myself thinking seriously about the water issue as well. Generations to come. And that brings me to my next point in this review. Participation.

The book represents the start of a journey I’m going to enjoy being part of. Every one of you can do that as well. Just go here.

At the end of the book, Robin presents us with a number of conclusions, all worth reading and spending deeper time on. I am particularly interested in one to do with taxing heavily at the platform level. There is a need to ensure that the value generated by the miracle of the building blocks does not go disproportionately to the platform; without that, inequality must rise. Up to now, I have worked on the belief that there is a self-correcting mechanism in place: if peers don’t share in the wealth generated, the platform runs out of steam over time because the demand side dries up. It’s something I need to pore over, which is why I will be reading it again soon.

Something else occurred to me as I read the book.

It’s rubbish.

No, not the book. The stuff below. [Photo courtesy Jayanand].


When dealing with the three building blocks, the book takes us carefully and instructively through a slice/aggregate/make open cycle, showing how that allows excess capacity to be collated and made easily usable. And it made me think of rubbish and recycling. Right now the whole recycling business looks broken, if the landfills that scar this earth are anything to go by. Lots of well-meaning people separating all kinds of things that then end up in one unsightly mess somewhere ostensibly out of sight of most people, and then making an embarrassing appearance when least wanted.

Waste is an inelegant form of excess. Nowadays, when I select ingredients for cooking, one of the things I do is weigh up how much of what I’m buying is destined not to be used by me. Some of the packaging is artificial, some natural. One needs artificial recycling, the other making into compost. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that the right platform from Inc will empower Peers to sort this problem out once and for all, by making waste collection and filtering a proper edge activity, and by creating exchange or auction based mechanisms to discover inventory, price and quantity.

Those are the kinds of ideas that floated around my head as I read the book. It touches on many things we’re all thinking about, but puts them together in a three-building-block framework that is pragmatic and useful.

That framework represents an AND in a world dominated by EITHER/OR. Individuals AND corporates. Digital AND physical. Local AND global. Every time the book comes to an either/or, it makes an and of it, and that is incredibly useful when it comes to dialogue and debate on this and related subjects.

None of this is easy. Every time someone mentions digital business as being disruptive, there are those whose eyes, minds and hearts glaze over. Every time someone mentions sharing, abundance and communities, there are those who exhibit similar responses.

This book is for them. It provides a sensible way to look at the world we live in from a digital perspective, without it being all about profit or all not about profit.

We need equanimity, facts, balance when we debate many of the global issues we face. This is exemplified by the Bruce Schneier quote somewhere in the middle:

Between the quick and the strong, what we need is a stalemate. We need a proper balance between institutional and distributed power. The more we can balance power among various groups, the more stable society will be.

This book is for everyone who thinks the statement above makes sense. So go buy it now and read it.

A coda. If you’ve made it this far. I decided to write my first Amazon review, and wanted it to be much shorter and punchier than this post. So this is what I said there:

Been looking forward to this book for some time, and I wasn’t disappointed. The three-building-block model of looking at current business models in a hyperconnected world: peers, platforms and excess capacity: is a very useful way of approaching it. The tips on how to build sustainable businesses using these blocks are considered and valuable; and the section on implications for the future and what we can do about it is challenging and inspiring. All in all an excellent book covering some very important ground.

Murmurations on a Sunday morning

Murmuration. What a wonderful word. I remember being fascinated by collective nouns at school, particularly those to do with birds. An unkindness of ravens. A parliament of rooks. A murder of crows. An ostentation of peacocks.

And a murmuration of starlings. That one stuck with me. Really stuck with me. Particularly since I then had no idea what a starling looked like.

That was a long time ago. Now I know what starlings look like, and watch them visit my garden. I’ve even seen murmurations regularly. But I never tire of them. Which is why I was delighted to see this NBC video.

While on the subject of videos, I remember being a little surprised seeing this a few months ago:


Yet when I consider the number of videos that float past me in my Facebook and Twitter streams, the surprise wears off, to be replaced by stirrings of irritation. Never been a fan of videos kicking into life as if they had a life of their own. Not in my stream you don’t.

That past irritation notwithstanding, I’ve been delighted with a number of videos that have presented themselves to me in the recent past. Here’s a smattering:

First, one of my favourite songs. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Legend has it that Dylan is singing it publicly for the first time, for Donovan’s benefit.

Second, here’s a repeat of the violinist who plays Super Mario. Been around for about five years, now getting second wind after Joi Ito shared it.

More recently, the exact moment that Calbuco began to erupt, captured by a hiker:

And finally Sarychev erupting last year, as seen by NASA: