Thinking about cooking and about getting things done

I love cooking.

One of my signature dishes is “spag bol“. Except the pasta I use is not spaghetti. And the sauce I make is not what most people would consider to be bolognese. Think of it as the Trigger’s Broom of cooking.

If I wanted to be precise I would call the  dish gramigna alla salsiccia. Years ago I spent time in Bologna, asking to be served ragu in maybe a dozen restaurants. Most of them served me  gramigna alla salsiccia. And what was good enough for the people of Bologna was good enough for me.

The experience of spending that time in Bologna opened my eyes to looking more carefully at how the meat sauce and the pasta differed by region, and for that matter why they differed. The more time I spent investigating the sauces and the pastas, the more fascinated I became by the whole thing.

I guess it was only a matter of time before I had to try and build a model for myself, one that spanned across the regions, one that represented at the very least a crude abstraction of all that was involved. Trying to do that made me think, not just about cooking the dish, but about the relevance of the process to other things I think about.

The first is about the time taken to do anything.

Visiting the kitchens of the restaurants in Bologna, talking to the chefs, I learnt that there was quite some flexibility in the time taken to cook the ragu. Most recommended at least four hours; some said eight if possible. At least one suggested I start the previous night, and let it simmer all night. For dinner the next day. But all of them agreed that the very minimum was around 45 minutes, and that too only if pushed; their preferred minimum was two hours.

45 minutes. 8 hours or even overnight. Quite a range.

I grew up in a family whose livelihood was journalism. It didn’t matter what was done, or not done, during the week; what mattered was that the issue had rolled off the presses in time to be franked for posting in the early hours of Saturday, around 4am. That was the deadline. No excuses.

Most things we do have a “maximum time”, a time by which something has to be done.

John Seely Brown, someone I have great respect and fondness for, said something very relevant to this debate many years ago. How long does it take for a four-year-old to become a five-year-old? One year.

Many things we do also have a “minimum time”, a time before which something can’t be done.

When I’m cooking the ragu, I need to know both these times, the minimum as well as the maximum. Once I know these, I can approach the rest of the job with confidence.

Whatever the job, you then have to lay the foundations in order to do it well. For ragu this consists of preparing the odori and the battuto so as to make the soffrito. The things that provide the aroma (the odori) combined with the things that are beaten up (the battuto) that are then “underfried” (the soffrito) in olive oil, until translucent, to form the base. Here, a little practice helps. Onions, garlic, shallots, fennel, parsley, basil, and bay leaf can give the aroma, while carrots and celery get used to regulate the flavour, the “sweetness”. You don’t have to use all the odori; but you should have the carrots and the celery chopped fine. Most people use a simple rule of thumb: the chopped onions are about as much as the celery and the carrots taken together.

Whatever the dish, whatever the job, it’s worth knowing the choices you have in building the foundations, why you have them, how to combine them, how to test them, how to use the feedback to refine the output, as many times as needed. Iteration is important even for the foundations.

Then you come to the meat. For this dish it’s sausage meat, the salsiccia. If you can’t be bothered to make the salsiccia the hard way, and if you can’t get salsiccia easily, then a 1:1 ratio of beef mince to pork mince will suffice. If pork is not your thing then substitute lamb. If meat is not your thing then making a meat sauce is probably not your thing either, though in theory you could use alternative sources of protein. But I’ve never tried that for a ragu.

It’s important at this stage to “seal” the meat, even though it’s minced. Ed Yourdon will probably call it high cohesion and loose coupling. David Weinberger will probably say “small pieces loosely joined”. They’d both be right. Sealing the meat ensures it doesn’t crumble into goop. The soft slightly oily translucent foundation helps with that sealing process and imparts additional flavour and aroma. Gently.

Once the meat is sealed, there’s a decision to make. Are you going red or gold? I was quite surprised to see that the ragu I was served in Bologna was usually golden in colour, a gold flecked with brown, rather than the red of the meat sauces I was used to. That was because the gramigna alla salsiccia route was based on white wine, the slightest whiff of chopped tomato, and optionally even some milk or cream; whereas the classic red ragu route was based on red wine and a more generous helping of the chopped tomato and tomato paste. You can’t go the red route and then add milk or cream.

I usually go gold. Once I had my first gramigna alla salsiccia I was hooked. No going back.

Some people add a few more herbs along with the wine, but there are many who prefer that all the herbs come at the foundation stage. I’m with the majority on that.

A good knowledge of the minimum and maximum time. Solid awareness of the ingredients, their roles,  and their relationships to each other. Real understanding of the options and when they come into play. Some interventions to refine the taste and flavour, based on active feedback. And patience to see the job through.

All the chefs I’ve seen in operation taste vigorously. Make a point of smelling the aroma regularly. Test the consistency and texture as often as possible.

Iteration. Active feedback loops. Knowing when and how to intervene. Always with an eye on the outcome.

That’s cooking.

Sometimes it’s also how you get things done.

In a perverse kind of way, I think of slow food as “agile” and fast food as “waterfall”. When I cook slow, I iterate, I learn, I react. And I keep doing that. When I see fast food being prepared, it’s about one way of doing things from start to finish, with standardised monitoring and alerts but no iteration.

I know what I prefer.










Thinking about social objects

You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.

Andrew Largeman, a character in Garden State, a film that was written and directed by Zach Braff some years ago.

A group of people that miss the same imaginary place. That phrase really stuck in my head when I saw the movie, and it’s stayed there ever since. Go see the film if you haven’t already, you won’t regret it. [And you don’t have to take my word for it either. An IMDB rating of 7.9, spread out over 90,000+ votes, nearly a thousand reviews, that’s some going.]

It wasn’t long after that when Jyri Engestrom started riffing with the idea of social objects, and when Hugh MacLeod picked it up and spoke to me at length about the concept, part of me was still completely stuck in the Andrew Largeman mindset. The same imaginary place.

And that’s part of the reason I share some of the things I do via twitter: The music I listen to. The food I’m cooking or eating. The films I’m watching; the books I’m reading; the places I go to. Sometimes what I share is in the immediate past, sometimes it’s in the present, sometimes all I’m doing is declaring my intent. Because, paraphrasing John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

When we share our experiences of sights and sounds and smells, we recreate the familiar imaginary places we share with others. We use these digital objects as the seed, as one dimension of the experience to flesh out the rest of that experience. So we take the sound or image or location or even in some cases the smell, and we extrapolate it into a rich memory of that particular experience. Which is often a worthwhile thing to do, for all the people who shared that “imaginary place” with you.

This has become more valuable as a result of phenomena like Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, that have made it easier for you to share the digital objects with the people you shared the original experience with. Which is why any tool that helps you capture what you’re watching or reading or listening to or visiting or eating is worth experimenting with.

This is something I’ve been doing for some time now, playing with every tool that comes on to the market, trying to see what it gives me that others didn’t. [When I started doing this, I had to come to terms quite quickly with the fact that some people don’t like being on the receiving end of all this “sharing”. More than once, I thought long and hard about segmenting my stream so that people could tune in or tune out of the particular segment. But I’ve stayed “whole” nevertheless. More on this later].

I’ve written about social objects a few times, even touched on the topic of something analogous to a graphic equaliser for an individual lifestream, yet I felt it was worth while in discussing them further in the context of “a group of people that miss the same imaginary place”. This time around, I want to concentrate on the ecosystem, on the tools and conventions we will need. Because that’s how sharing of experiences can become simpler, more extensive, more valuable.

I think we do five things with digital objects:

  • Introduce the object into shared space
  • Experience (and re-experience) the object
  • Share what you’re experiencing with others
  • Place in context that experience
  • Connect and re-connect with the family that has the same shared imaginary place

So to my way of thinking, once I start going down this road, every music site, every photo site, every video site, every audio site, they’re all about helping us introduce digital objects into shared space.

Many of these introducer sites also double up as experiencer sites: so you can watch the videos, hear the music and so on.

Every community site then becomes a way of sharing the experience of those objects: every review, every rating, every post, every link, every lifestream, all these are just ways of sharing our experiences, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without.

As more people get connected, and as the tools for sharing get better, and as the costs of sharing drop, we’re going to have the classic problems that we’ve already learnt about from the web in general. There are too many firehoses. It becomes hard to know what is out there, harder to find the right things. Errors, inaccuracies, even lies abound. (Digital objects are easy to modify).

So metadata becomes important. Preferably automated, so that authenticity is verifiable. Preferably low-cost and high-speed. Preferably indelibly associated with the digital object. Preferably easy to augment with tags and folksonomies and hashtags. Times, places, people. Names and descriptions. Devices involved, settings for those devices. History of views, listens, access, usage, editing. The edits themselves.

Authenticity becomes even more important. Watermarking the object while at the same time allowing copies of the object to be modified.

Search tools have to get better. I’ve been reading and re-reading Esther Dyson’s The Future of Internet Search for some time now, linking what she’s saying to what I’m thinking about here. Esther has been a friend and mentor for a long time; when she has something to say, I shut up and listen.

Visualisation tools also have to get better, which is why I spend time reading stuff like Information is Beautiful, why I visit feltron or manyeyes.

Sometimes many of these things happen in one place, elegantly and beautifully. That’s why I like Chris Wild’s Retroscope, why I like How To Be A Retronaut. It helps us place into context some of the things we share, some of the things we used to share.

Sometimes the tools for doing some of this move us into new dimensions, as in the case of layar and augmented reality, or for that matter AR spectacles. Noninvasive ways of overlaying information on to physical objects, ways that allow us to share the imaginary place more effectively.

As a young man, I was an incurable optimist. While time has tempered that optimism, my outlook on life continues to be positive, so positive that people sometimes claim I’m almost Utopian. Yet I still remember two quotations that were like kryptonite to the Superman of my optimism.

The first was Thoreau’s: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. And the second was Burke’s: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“.

There are many things we have to get better at, and many people working hard to make sure that, collectively, we get better at them. Feeding the world, eradicating poverty and the illnesses associated with poverty. Making sure every child has access to basic education. Improving healthcare, moving from cure to prevention, moving from symptom to root cause. Being better neighbours. Being better stewards of our environment.

I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally lonely; I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally depressed. And I have always wanted to do whatever I can to prevent these things from happening.

The tools we have today can help us eradicate loneliness and depression in ways that pharmacology can only dream of. Those tools can and will get better.

Of course there are things that come in the way, things we have to deal with first. Concepts like intellectual property rights have to be overhauled from the abominations they represent today, rebuilt from the ground up. Concepts like privacy and confidentiality have to be reformed to help us bring back community values that were eroded over the last 150 years or so. Human rights have to be reframed in a global context, the very concept of a nation re-interpreted, a whole new United Nations formed.

But while all that happens, we can help. By continuing to create ways that people remember the familiar shared imaginary places, by reminding ourselves what family means.

Family is not about blood alone, it is about covenant relationships. When something goes wrong in a covenant relationship, you don’t look for someone to blame, or even sue. You look for ways to fix it. Together.

Families don’t just share a past, they share a present. And a future. Social objects are, similarly, not just about the past, they’re about the present, they’re about the future.

We’re on the start of a whole new journey, and so we spend time learning about sharing by declaring past and present experiences. Soon we will get better at sharing intentions.

Soon we will get better at sharing imaginary places that are in the future, not in the past or present.

Soon. to paraphrase the prophet Joel,  our old men shall dream dreams, our young men shall see visions.

Of lazy tandoori and “epicuration”

I love tandoori food. And for many years I stayed away from cooking tandoori food for a variety of trivial reasons. Reasons like not having a tandoor, a tandoori oven. Not having a good tandoori recipe. Not being able to understand the recipe. Not looking forward to eating food cooked by someone who didn’t have the right tools, ingredients, recipes or skill. Not wanting to clear up and wash up after cooking such a meal.

As I said, trivial reasons.

And then one day, like learning to ride a bicycle, all those trivial reasons disappeared. In a matter of hours I was cooking tandoori without a tandoor, not worrying about recipes, actually liking what I cooked and looking forward to eating it. And being able t0 wash up quickly and efficiently.

Why was this? How did it happen?

First, it was because of epicurious. The more I used epicurious, the more I knew about how to get to the right recipes. There’s gold dust in there. Like this recipe for tandoori-style grilled meat or shrimp. 6 servings. Active time 20 minutes. Total time 4.5 hours. Eight ingredients for the marinade, nothing complex, very little work to be done with them. A simple recipe that pretty much consisted of : make marinade. leave meat to marinate. cook. So thank you epicurious.

Second, we discovered cooking liners. No more heavy-duty pan scrubbing needed. Easy to clean and wash, totally reusable. Even dishwasher-friendly.

So here’s the story:

Put the first 8 ingredients into a blender. It should look something like this:

The blended marinade should look something like this:

Marinating “protein” should look like this:

At the start of grilling, it should look a bit like this:

Halfway through it should look like this:

And then at the end it should look like this:

Seriously, it works. 20 minutes of activity, and everything happens just as Victoria Granof, the “author” of the recipe, says it should. Thank you Victoria.

For me, it’s not just about the food, which I love. It’s about how preparing such food is becoming more accessible to many of us. How a site like epicurious works, how people share their “content” freely, how the recipes get reviewed and annotated and voted up and down, how the community participates in all this. How someone like me, from Calcutta, can sit in Windsor, Berkshire and use a recipe submitted by a Cordon Bleu trained pastry chef and relating to cuisine closer to my birthplace than hers by an order of magnitude.

The community element is important, but so is the understanding that for subjects like this, community votes by themselves are of no value. These votes need to be tuned to my personal taste and trust levels. Some intelligence, some wisdom, some experience, some “curation” has to be applied.

It’s like book reviews. Sometimes I run out of things to read while at an airport, usually because I didn’t allow for the scale of delay. So I go to the bookstore or equivalent and take a look. There’s no point my looking for any of my favourite authors, I tend to know about their new books and would usually have bought and read them already. Which means I’m truly in the realm of “airport reads”. And I scan the paperbacks quickly, looking for authors I haven’t heard of. When I find one, I tend to check the inside front cover area for soundbite reviews.

But there’s a short cut. If one of those reviews is by Kirkus then I buy the book, no further questions asked. If the review is a “starred review” then I buy everything else by that author available in that shop.

You see, over the years, I trust Kirkus. [If you want to understand about trust and recommendation and their role in building relationships, in buying and selling, in business in general, then go read Chris Brogan’s Trust Agents. Now.]

That’s what it comes down to, trust. Curation is the process by which aggregate data is imbued with personalised trust.

That’s what Victoria Granof did for me. She appears to spend time going around the world collecting recipes and trying them out, sampling cuisines I am interested in, using cooking styles that appeal to me. Slow and relaxed, simple without being mechanical or bland, relying on natural ingredients.

Community input is valuable. Community voting and recommendation mechanisms help control firehoses, and are far better than product advertising. But you need something more. You need the recommenders to be people you trust, because their tastes are similar to yours. Discovering taste similarity is not easy; it can be automated, but you know something? There’s a lot of joy to be had in the discovery process. Because it makes you do something.

Doing is good.

Thinking about food and music and climate change

I think about food. A lot. In fact I’m perennially hungry, have been that way ever since I can remember. So it should come as no surprise that every now and then, I try and view things from the perspective of food.

Take music for example. Recorded music. Music that has been bottled or canned or preserved.


The ability to preserve music in this form is fairly recent in human history. And without this ability, the whole argument about downloads and ripping and  format transformation rights and I don’t know what else falls by the wayside.

So when I look at this diagram, and read this report, I begin to wonder. Incidentally, there’s a worthwhile series of posts on the subject here and here, dealing, for example, with the winner-takes-all bias in some of this.


I know how I feel about preserved food. About preservatives in food. About additives and e-numbers and what-have-you. I know how I insist on using fresh herbs and spices when I cook, even though it takes longer and it’s more expensive.  I know how I dislike frozen food, how much I dislike frozen food. I will not knowingly eat something that has been microwaved if I can avoid it. These things I know.

There was a time when there was no such thing as frozen food. In the history of food the ability to freeze food and reheat later is fairly recent.

There is a cost to freezing and transporting and heating frozen food. That cost will soon become more apparent to people, as awareness of carbon footprint in the food transportation and processing business grows. And more people will start eating local produce again.

And maybe we’re going to see something similar about music and film and sport. If this whole DRM and downloads and intellectual property rights debate continues to get out of hand, criminalising entire generations and seeking to corrupt and destroy the value of the internet, then we’re going to see a revolution.

We will see a renaissance of live music, of live performances, of live sport. Local teams supported. Local farmers supported. Local playwrights and poets and authors supported.

We will see a renaissance of travelling bands, of authors and poets on roadshows reading their own works.

We will see a renaissance of people paying to see artists perform, rather than paying for the right to perhaps maybe one day hear something recorded, canned and preserved, something they have to climb DRM Everest to hear, and even then it may not be possible.

DRMers and dreamers. Which one are you?

Of ragu and bolognese and Cory Doctorow

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a thing about ragu, as described here, here, here, here and most recently here.

One of the great things about dishes like ragu with pasta is that there’s so much scope for experimentation.

You can vary the pasta in use: the traditional spaghetti, the more recent penne, the gramigna that the people in Bologna swear by, the paccheri that the Neapolitans used to smuggle garlic, any of thousands of varieties of pasta.

In fact you don’t even have to use pasta.

You can vary the meat. Some swear by pork, some by lamb, some by beef. Some mix pork and lamb. In Sorrento I was served buffalo. Those in the know in Bologna said that the best thing to do is to use salsiccia, a local sausage. But you know what? Even they would say it’s up to you.

Up to you. That’s the beauty of cooking. Someone makes a recipe up. Someone else uses a recipe that’s been in her family for generations. Someone else uses a cookery book. Or even the Web (I’m a regular user of epicurious).

You can use a recipe, but you don’t have to follow it.

It used to be said that human beings go through three stages of development: dependence (as in parent-child); independence (as in adolescent); then interdependence (as in grown-up). These stages are also visible in organisations as they develop: how business units have a dependent relationship on the centre, then flex their muscles as they grow, finally coming to a mutually respectful and valuable relationship over time.

So it is with cooking. I remember a time when the only way I could cook was to follow a recipe parrot-fashion. Then came a time when I wanted to do my own thing, experiment with abandon. Now I read recipes and change them as I want or need: sometimes I have to vary ingredients because one of the guests has a medical condition, known allergic reaction or low tolerance for some critical component of a dish.


What’s all this got to do with Cory Doctorow? Simple. This post is a review of his latest book, Makers, which you can read “serially” for free over here at Tor, or pre-order here.


I’ve been fascinated by the concept of open multisided markets for many years now. How innovation flourishes, how business flourishes, how people flourish and how society as a whole gains from using open models for business. [If you want to learn more about open multisided markets, try reading Paying With Plastic or Invisible Engines, two excellent books on the subject; David Evans and Richard Schmalensee know their stuff and tell it well.]

Cory has done once again what he does so well: he has created a world where we can learn about the rich possibilities ahead of us in terms of cultural development, yet one which is fraught with risks because of the incredibly stupid things we can do. If we let ourselves.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I’m going to say nothing whatsoever about the plot. What I am going to say is this:

Our world is full of franchise-based models, where people make money by doing something formulaic and controlling input ingredients, manufacturing process and output quality. In itself there is nothing wrong with a franchise model.

But you know something? I can make myself a hamburger or pizza any way I want. I don’t have to go to a particular franchise operator, or buy their ingredients, or use their recipes, or work their processes. I can if I want to. I don’t have to.

Imagine a world where someone managed somehow to patent the burger or the pizza, where it was no longer possible to make your own. You had to use someone else’s systems, their processes, their ingredients.

In a physical world this is hard to imagine, or, for that matter, to implement and police.

In a digital world it is a different matter altogether. We can police it. We can implement systems that force people to use particular systems, particular processes, particular ingredients. We can create artificial monopolies. And suffer the consequences.

I have always maintained that every artificial scarcity will be met with an equal and opposite artificial abundance; that’s why region coding on a DVD is an abject failure, why the music industry moved away from DRM, why we have to find new and pragmatic models for making sure creators and distributors of “content” are appropriately rewarded. [I’ve been visibly influenced by much that Cory has written in this respect; I’d also recommend the works of people like Larry Lessig, Terry Fisher, Jonathan Zittrain, the Berkman Center in general (with the mercurial Charlie Nesson). Rishab Aiyer Ghosh and the people at First Monday are also well worth a visit.]

There are many reasons to avoid creating new monopolies, not all of them pinko tree-hugger in origin. We are learning every day about the value of diversity in genes (I was lucky enough to hear Cary Fowler speak on the subject recently: if you’re interested, take a look at The Threatened Gene, even though it was written nearly two decades ago.)

Gene diversity gives us options for the future, options for conditions and scenarios we haven’t faced, don’t face but could face in the future. What is true for plants is in its own way true for cultures, for the way we think and act, for what we believe.

And there’s something far more important at stake here, how we as human beings learn and develop and create and experience things. What Pat Kane builds out so majestically for in The Play Ethic. What Dan Bricklin expounds so masterfully in his essays on tools in Bricklin on Technology.

As a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cory knows a thing or two about the world we’re entering. The wonderful possibilities ahead of us. The potential for awful waste. The social, economic and political consequences of getting it right. Or wrong.

Makers is a book about that future. A book that brings together open multisided platforms, opensource and democratised innovation, distributed “edge-based” production, customer-driven demand creation, customer-participated supply.

Makers is a book that brings that future into shape in front of us, allows us to visualise the models that would make it work. Or break it. The implications for patents, for intellectual property rights in general. The role of money and credit and payments and micropayments. The rule of law; and where the law could be an ass.

Makers is a book which lets us get into the heads of the born digital, the grown up digital, the way they think about things. What their values are. Why we should take a leaf out of Larry Lessig’s Remix and make sure we don’t criminalise a whole generation by our lack of understanding.

Go ahead and read the book. Electronically. Or physically.

Go ahead and pay for it. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s your future. And mine. And ours. And those of our children. And a rattling good read as well.