The Double Dagger-Asterisk: For cricket anoraks only


When Google first arrived on the scene, I used to enjoy constructing “unGoogleable” questions and sharing them with others. My fascination with the number 229 in men’s Test cricket used to be the basis of one such unGoogleable question. (Technically, my fascination began with 224, and then 228, and has stayed at 229 since early 2001, but that’s something I’ve written about before).

Search engines have evolved quite a lot since I first set those questions; and now we have LLMs to contend with as they augment the traditional engines. So I’ve been thinking lazily about constructing questions that have answers that are easily discoverable in the public domain, but where you need to know quite a bit about some narrow topic, in order to know how to go about finding the answer to a question on that topic.

This post is about one such question. And it’s written in a way that it won’t naturally spoon-feed the LLMs.

The question

The IND-ENG Test at Rajkot is the 2530th Men’s Test to be played.

Those Tests have involved 354 Asterisks in the scorecard.

And 294 Daggers.

Sometimes the Asterisk is also the Dagger.

In those 2530 Tests, we’ve had 34 Dagger-Asterisks in the scorecard.

303 of the Tests have involved one Dagger-Asterisk in the scorecard.

And 9 of them have involved two: the Double-Dagger-Asterisk, a very rare beast.

Those 9 Tests have involved 9 different Dagger-Asterisks.

7 of the Dagger-Asterisks have been involved in two different Tests against another Dagger-Asterisk.

Only one of the Dagger-Asterisks has been involved in just one Test against another Dagger-Asterisk.

And only one of the Dagger-Asterisks has been involved in three Tests against other Dagger-Asterisks.

Name the two unique Dagger-Asterisks.

Thinking lazily about capacity and constraints

Introduction: The Dirty Dozen


Or A.

When it came to film ratings, that’s all there was, when I was growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s. A film was rated either Universal or Adult. There was no 12 or 18 or R or X or anything else. Just U or A. It did mean that many foreign films shown in India were given “Universal” ratings, much more than would have been the case, for example, in the UK or US. That U rating, however, depended on some hefty censor cuts being implemented.

As was probably the case with many teenagers in metropolitan India in the early 1970s, the A classification represented a challenge to us: how do we get in? The 13- and 14-year-olds among us had developed sophisticated techniques in response, and would manage to sneak in here and there.

Scene from MGM’s The Dirty Dozen

My first “adult” film was The Dirty Dozen. It was my introduction to one of my all-time favourite actors, Donald Sutherland. While I found the movie enthralling, I nearly didn’t watch it. The opening scenes, where a young soldier is hanged, really upset me, and I wanted to leave the cinema. But I was with friends, all of whom had snuck in under-age as well, and I put a brave face on it.

But it disturbed me, and I had nightmares about those opening scenes. I found myself doing exercises to try and strengthen my neck muscles, I was that affected by the film.

I then spent a few years no longer trying to go to “A” movies, I was nearly 18 before I went again. Because I’d thought about my experience and decided I didn’t actually like it. That there must be a reason why an A movie was rated A, and that seeing such a film at the wrong time was not good for my brain or my mind.

Natural brakes

I’d come to that conclusion in a convoluted way, by thinking about nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Many of the rhymes I’d learnt had relatively horrible things happening: grandmas turning into wolves, children being abandoned in dark forests, wolves huffing and puffing houses down, children dancing to death, step-siblings doing evil things, dragons and monsters everywhere. Yet none of these affected me, or any of the children around me. Why?

Because they weren’t made frighteningly graphic. Most of the time, there weren’t any illustrations, we were left to our own devices to imagine things. There was a natural brake on what we could imagine. And where there were illustrations, they were anodyne.

We had natural brakes in our minds and on our imaginations. Brakes that served to protect us.

Many years later, when I first heard John Seely Brown’s lovely question and answer couplet, I smiled wryly: How long does it take a five year old to become a six year old? One year.

We have natural brakes. Brakes that protect us. When I see phenomena like crown shyness, I think of natural brakes. When I read about [Robin] Dunbar’s number or George A Miller’s Magical Number Seven, I think of natural brakes.

Brakes that serve us. Brakes that protect us.

Brakes in the workplace

When I started work in the UK over forty-two years ago, I saw one of these for the first time:

Reusable internal memo envelope

We weren’t quite in the Ark, but there were antediluvian aspects. Where I worked, we all had computers on our desks. Not quite. We had dumb terminals hooked to that great mainframe in the sky; actually in our case the “machine room” was on the 9th floor, housing millions of dollars of Burroughs equipment. This was before WYSIWIG. Before word processing. Before PCs. Way before Web. The internet was around, and we did use dial-up modems, but email was still rare and special, despite being about a decade old. And typewriters were still around in offices. Photocopiers resembled small villages, and the desktop printer was but a dream whose time hadn’t come.

So we wrote memos. And made copies of the memos only when unavoidable. (I found it odd that people would write memos to people who were a few feet away, a few rooms away, occasionally a whole floor away: the Calcuttan in me couldn’t quite figure that out.

But we wrote memos. And they were occasionally copied. And the memos did their dance around the internal mail system, waltzing around in orange or yellow multi-use envelopes, or, very rarely in the companies I worked in, in dark green or white ones. The envelopes were well used, almost falling apart. Occasionally you’d be “first recipient” of a new envelope: in normal practice, the previous sender’s name was in the box above your name, a bit like a chain letter. (That led to some vanity behaviour by some, hoarding an envelope which just happened to have some bigwig’s name on the box above yours, and then using it “to impress”. Some things in life don’t change.

Anyway, writing memos wasn’t trivial. Normal desk-based dumb terminal access had connectivity to “listing paper” printers, not considered suitable for memos, even internal ones. So there were secretarial pools who did the memo typing, working off your listing paper print. Copying was done in the copying room, and people had to be authorised to use them. In some companies, it wasn’t just authorisation, you needed a physical key, and sometimes a cost allocation key as well. Some things in life don’t change.

So we didn’t write too many memos. And we didn’t send them to too many people. There were brakes. Practical brakes. Real constraints.

And now? Not waving but drowning.

In those days, we had constraints everywhere. The phones on our desks were internal phones, letting us call others in the same building. If you were very senior, then you had a direct-dial phone on your desk. If you were even more senior, you had international direct dial rights. Which usually meant you had a key to the executive toilets. (And yes, you were male).

So communications were local. Call volumes were low. And mail was physical and also low volume.

Teams were small, even departments were small. Because analogue.

But hyper connectivity and ubiquitous portable smart devices and affordable bandwidth and the Web were all on their way, and the constraints were to disappear. Kevin Kelly’s copy machine was on its way to becoming Deus.

Paraphrasing something George Gilder said many years ago, every economic era is characterised by its own peculiar abundances and scarcities: businesses that know how to learn from both will prosper.

[An aside. The Beat Generation’s William S Burroughs was a grandson of William Seward Burroughs, the founder of Burroughs Corporation. The author of Naked Lunch is correctly referred to as William Seward Burroughs II, while his grandfather gets called William Seward Burroughs I].

Some conclusions

(When you get to my age, and when you don’t write often, every post has the risk of becoming a book. I try and mitigate that risk by writing late in the evening and stopping when it’s time for sleep — when you get to my age, I stay awake up to eleven, and not in a Spinal Tap sense.)

I’ve always been fascinated by capacity and by constraints. How much time it takes the body to process food and drink, how backlogs form, what happens as a result. Why small teams work well. Why everything and everyone has an “expected life”, why the cherry trees in my garden are different from the ancient yew that keeps them company. Why there are connections between body mass and metabolic rate. Why the expensive tissue hypothesis is interesting.

When I think about constraints and capacity, I think about physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, even social constraints. Constraints of ageing. Constraints of not aging enough.

When I think about constraints and capacity, I think about performance, about the state of flow, about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, about reaching and stretching potential. But always within some set of constraints. Sometimes I’m thinking about Eliyahu Goldratt, or Donella Meadows, or Stafford Beer, even some EF Schumacher, just to throw a few other influences on this topic into the mix.

When I think about our cat Lily, I think about capacity and constraints. About cat ages and human ages and what the difference means.

When I think about myself, my family, my friends, my life, I think about capacity and constraints. That in turn makes me think about priorities and about resource allocation, about stewardship, about renewal cycles.

I’m not in any way “anti-growth” per se, but try and ground myself in understanding capacity and constraints even when thinking about growth.

Especially when thinking about growth.

And so to bed.

Song songs


This is a post about song songs. A term that probably doesn’t mean much to you. Not surprising. I made the term up when I was maybe thirteen. Now remember this was over fifty years ago, not just before streaming, not just before MP3s, but a long time ago. Before CDs. Even before cassette tapes.

In those days, there were a limited number of ways to listen to music. You could hear it “live”, when someone performed in front of you; you could be listening to the music on vinyl, on a record player; you could be using a reel-to-reel tape deck. Or you could be listening to it being played on the radio.

In my teens, I listened to a lot of music. Maybe seven, eight hours a day. Listening to music was a sibling thing. A family thing. A friends and neighbours thing. Our apartment (Flat 10, so yes we had been known to call ourselves the Flatteners) seemed to act as a club from dawn till dusk, and even more of a club between dusk and dawn. People between the age of six and twenty streamed through all day and all night, there was aways food and drink to be had, always somewhere to doss down if that’s what you wanted to do.

Somehow, magically, this 24 hour club was kept clean, dry and functional. I sometimes wonder how my parents put up with it. It was a games room, a concert hall, a chill out place, a cafe and a youth hostel. All this was over 50 years ago, so maybe my memory’s playing tricks, embellishing what was there. But for sure that’s how I remember it.

Musical roots

My “Western” musical roots were set during that time. Foundations of classical music and Big Band sound, mainly on lacquer 78s, a bunch of 10″ 33s, and a larger pile of 12″ 33s. The classical was mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Chopin; the jazz was mainly Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, with some Glenn Miller. (I thought we had all the Glenn Miller recordings ever produced, or so my father told me, a short list given his untimely passing. Nowadays it seems there’s one for every attendee at the World Cup Final 1966, a number that increases every year).

A thin layer of 40s and 50s musicals and early “pop” then formed the base. All the usual suspects. Pat Boone. Harry Belafonte. Perry Como. Connie Francis. Doris Day. Every musical known to mankind, or so it felt. South Pacific. My Fair Lady. Oklahoma. Carousel. Paint Your Wagon. (The Sound of Music et al were to follow). There were also a sprinkle of 78rpm singles, with some real doozies there: my favourites were Tom Dooley, Hernando’s Hideaway, Tequila, with a touch of Eddie Calvert doing Oh Mein Papa. I probably have to mention Burl Ives at Carnegie Hall and Edmondo Ros’ Bongos From The South as 12″ oddballs, along with Ruth Wallis Sings (“naughty” songs from the 40s) and Jimmy Shand and his Band (why, I’ll never know).

That was the base. I’ve left out hundreds of albums and singles, all gone to the Great Place in the Sky where single socks and Tupperware container lids live happily ever after.

That was the base upon which my musical journey began, a base that must have been laid by my father by 1960. If I try hard enough, I can probably “walk in” every album that entered our house since then, but it would bore you and I’d never finish.

Suffice it to say we went from Peter, Paul and Mary, the Beatles (we weren’t really a Stones house) and Simon and Garfunkel, through Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, loving every minute of what we were experiencing; sailed through the late 60s and early 1970s pop to settle down firmly in a core of singer-songwriter folk, folk rock and rock. Walk into our house and you’d hear Leonard Cohen and Cat Stevens, Traffic and Ten Years After, Cream and Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Dead and the Doors, Lindisfarne and Led Zeppelin, Fotheringay and Family, Donovan and the Doobies, Stevie Wonder and Supertramp, Steely Dan and Steppenwolf, Elton John and ELP, Creedence and Cocker, The Band and BST, Rare Earth, Moody Blues and Melanie, John Mayall and Jethro Tull, Queen and Bowie. You get my drift. (My wife thinks I love lists, and knows just how to stop me when I embark on one. You don’t have that privilege, so I’ve had to stop myself for your sake).

Song Songs

Which brings me to the reason for this post. As you can see, I’m the kind of person who finds it hard to choose “my favourite 1000 albums from 1975-1975”. (Yes, thousand). Thousands of albums. Tens of thousands of songs.

But very few Song Songs.

What are Song Songs? They’re the opposite of places like The Hat Shop, which used to be at 11 Goldhawk Road in the early 1980s. Today it looks like this, I haven’t been able to dig up contemporary photographs as yet.

11 Goldhawk Road today, at the western edge of Shepherds Bush Green

In the early 1980s, Mikawa didn’t exist. (I’m not sure there were that many Japanese restaurants anywhere in the UK in those days). What existed instead was The Hat Shop.

As you would expect, with a name like that, the shop window was full of hats. And when you entered the shop, more hats. Hats everywhere you looked.

And a staircase leading downstairs. With a small sign that said something like “tell them Phil sent ya”.

And when you went down, no hats. Just the smell of wonderful pizza. And some tables and chairs. With people sitting down and eating pizza.

That was The Hat Shop.

The opposite of a Song Song. So what is a Song Song? A song that has the word “song” in the title, perhaps in case you thought it was an automobile or a cigarette. The child and adolescent in me kept an eye out for song songs, mainly because they struck me as odd. And because I love lists.

So yes, I have a list of song songs. Over the years I’ve noticed they’re usually pretty good gateway songs, introductions to particular artists and albums. Here, then, is a curated (and blessedly short) list of seventeen such song songs:

Melanie: The Nickel Song

John Denver: Annie’s Song

Petula Clark: This is My Song

Graham Nash: Prison Song

Simon and Garfunkel: Kathy’s Song

Simon and Garfunkel: The 59th St Bridge Song

Joan Baez: Love Song to a Stranger

Leonard Cohen: The Stranger Song

The Doors: Alabama Song

The Who: The Song Is Over

The Doobie Brothers: Song To See You Through

Three Dog Night: Just An Old Fashioned Love Song

(Paul McCartney and) Wings: Silly Love Songs

Elton John: Your Song

America: Pigeon Song

Jethro Tull: A Song For Jeffrey

Neil Diamond: Song Sung Blue

Have fun.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall: continuing to think about digital engagement

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

(Apologies to those who aren’t Bob Dylan fans. Just to try something different, I’ve used the titles of Dylan songs as section/topic headings in this post. If you are a Dylan fan, feel free to click on the headings and that will take you to the song; and if you’re not a Dylan fan, please just humour me on this).

I’ve been a fan of Richard Bartle for quite some time now; I think I was introduced to his work by erstwhile colleague Kevin Marks a few decades ago. Bartle’s Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades classification of MUD players fascinated me, and I’m sure it was Kevin who introduced me to that paper.

Something else Bartle said really struck me when I was immersed in representing analogue things digitally; I referred to it in a post here nearly 16 years ago, and it bears repeating.

They don’t all use the same physics.

When we build digital experiences, we don’t have to replicate the physical equivalent. In some cases it may make sense to do so, but there isn’t an overarching compelling reason to do it. Doc Searls used to fantasise about having a single uber shopping trolley that he could use to visit whichever shops he wanted to go to, filling the trolley up with goods and services as he went along, criss-crossing markets and nations and timezones, then coming to the end of his shop and settling up once for the compound transaction. The “system” then deals with all the security, payment, completion and fulfilment issues, because it can. No reason why not.

Doc was saying this at least twenty years ago, probably even earlier. He’s still waiting, like Peter Thiel’s wait for his flying cars.

I’m waiting for something as well. I’m waiting for a time when it becomes easy for me to find products and services online. The arrival of search engines presaged this and built up my expectations. I was then disappointed to learn that some of the smartest people in the world preferred to make it easier for products to find me than for me to find them, that products have more privacy than people. (And those targeting tools, in the wrong hands or used for different purposes, can wreak havoc. As we’ve been finding out).

Why is this? Why is there so much complacency on the supply side, why is there an assumption that customers just won’t leave? Perhaps that complacency is based on strong historical evidence, that customer inertia is strong in many cases. So the game plan soon becomes “how can we make it harder and harder for the customer to leave?”. Walled gardens. Friction in the cancellation process. (One of my favourites is where you can sign up online but need to call or write to cancel, with the contact details and cancellation process buried deep in the gubbins of the system). Data- and history-driven lock-ins, as we’ve seen with mobile phones and with banking, the Hotel California route to customer migration.

That lock-in model will be harder and harder to sustain, as headwinds of regulation, increased competition and sheer customer power force change. The maxim of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” has a limited lifespan. New forms of lock-in will emerge and evolve, but not with the potency of earlier variants.

Unless companies learn that the best customer retention tool is good service (at a price the customer can afford), and that the retention tool works even better when customers are “free to leave”, they’re going to face the cliff-edge model of customer attrition. Customers stay. Until they don’t have to. At which point they leave, and leave with angst, never to return.

Because they can use different “physics”, and they do, there are many routes to differentiation. Those who choose routes that attract customers through the quality of their service, make them feel comfortable by the quality of their experience will find that they stay despite being free to leave.

I don’t want to throw out phrases like “use different physics” as if it’s a solve-it-all mantra. I think it would be better if I gave some examples.

As you can see with my use of Bob Dylan songs in this post, I like music. I particularly like music made between 1962 and 1977: the edges blur and change every now and then, but that’s the core. I don’t just like listening to music, I like going to concerts. Have always done. (The less said about my playing music the better).

I like going to concerts. Which means that when services like Ticketmaster emerged, I was an early adopter. Some years later, as I logged in, I was offered the option of using a social login or my email address. And it made me think. What could Ticketmaster do if they had my “friend graph”? Well, they could tell me which of my friends were going to the same concert, and on which days. Perhaps Ticketmaster could even tell me where they were sitting. For it to work, my friends would all have to opt in to some form of information-sharing, on an informed consent basis. So all I had to do is to weigh up the pros and cons. I began using the social logins, but only where I thought I could get value that I could not get some other way, and where I thought that the value exceeded the cost.

When I have visitors at home, it has become a lot easier for me to let them use the wireless network, because there are services on my phone to recognise them as known to me.

If someone has stored my card details when I bought something (assuming I gave them permission and assuming they wanted to take the risk of storing such data) they could refund me more easily when things go wrong, a failure, cancellation or delay of some sort. Another stress buster.

I travel a lot by train. I’ve never driven a car, never had a licence to do so. Of late I’ve been using Trainline to make my bookings, and to save the tickets in the Apple Wallet. Now we’ve had a lot of train strikes recently, and one of the things that Trainline does is to check my journeys and to let me know if a train I’m booked on is delayed or cancelled. It gives me details about changes and transfers in useful ways, informing me about the platforms where I “land” and where I “take off” and the time I have to make the connection. (I’ve used the app to check which platform a train is scheduled to leave from even when I haven’t bought a ticket through the app, and the fact it lets me do that endears them to me).

Firms want us to visit them regularly, to give them our business. They want to be Cheers, where everybody knows your name. They want to be the traditional “local”, where the landlord asks “pint of the usual” as you walk in, and sometimes even starts pouring you your drink without asking. They want to be the much-loved restaurant, where the chef says things like “food’s off” or “here comes trouble” just seeing you come in.

We’re still some way from that place. The digital experience has to be different from the analogue, doing things that couldn’t be done in the analogue, removing physical constraints and replacing them with freedoms. The same information I guard jealously today I will hand over with pleasure …. when the value’s there.

All I Really Want to Do

In the late 1990s, as everyone strove to be the best there was in the emerging digitally transformed world, we were all learning-by-observing. Keep the interfaces simple, dispatch complexity to the back end. Make the onboarding experience a delight. Differentiate on trust. That kind of thing, observed, experimented with, iterated and then embedded.

One of the things we observed was how parcel companies led the way by exposing their operations cycle. Instead of having to staff call centres to respond to customer queries on parcel status, they could improve service by letting customers check on the status of their own parcels themselves. Customers were happy, they felt empowered and engaged; the novelty was itself of value; and, over time, the effort of building that service would reduce costs. So we did our equivalent, called it OpsTracker, and let customers query the status of their trades themselves.

As we played with those concepts more, one more trend emerged. Customers wanted to know what was happening. And if you kept them informed, they’d be happy. Even when problems arose (and problems always arise), being kept informed was key.

Twenty years later, we still haven’t solved that problem. And customer engagement suffers as a result. If you’re not informed you don’t feel part of it. If you don’t feel part of it you don’t allow much latitude for delay or failure. Kathy Sierra used to speak of that moment when the customer stops saying “your system doesn’t work” and instead says “my system doesn’t work”. I think she called it the Kool-Aid moment, it was a long time ago. But we learnt from her, helping ensure that customers felt engaged with the product and service enough to claim personal ownership.

We don’t know what the problem is, we’re investigating. We know what the problem is, but don’t have a fix as yet. We’re fixing it, but we haven’t finished. We will be finished by <some not-too-in-the-future time>.

Not hard. So why doesn’t it happen all the time? Sometimes the systems and processes aren’t in place, so it’s headless chicken syndrome. Customers have no faith that the company they’re trying to engage with is competent, and trust is lost. Hard to recover.

Sometimes the systems and processes are in place, but the information is hoarded rather than shared. Sometimes the information is shared but not with the customer. Sometimes the status is drip-fed, and changes for the worse over time. The list goes on. That leads to cheque-in-the-post syndrome. Customers have no faith in what is stated and then begin to doubt what they’re told. The replacement aircraft is on its way, and your flight will take off in four hours. The engineer is on his way, you’re on his job schedule today. The courier has been dispatched, you’ll get your parcel this afternoon.

The principle remains the same. Where’s My Stuff? Why Isn’t It Here? When Will You Fix It? That’s all the customer really wants to do “post-trade”, whatever the “trade” is.

I’ve reached a stage where, when I get told there’s a replacement plane, I find out the call sign and track the plane in. For plane read car read parcel read whatever you like. Tracking will become more important and act as a differentiator. When I can track service from A but not B, or when I can track services from both A as well as B but A is faster and more reliable in its status reporting, A will win my custom. And the purpose of business, as Drucker said, is to create a customer.

What’s happening? Where’s my stuff? When’s it being fixed?

No information no involvement. No involvement no trust. No trust no engagement. A variation of what Patrick Lencioni referred to in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

If you want your customers to be engaged, keep them informed. Accurately. And on a timely basis. Not broadcast but personalised.

It Ain’t Me Babe

Many years ago I remember finding this sketch, by Mitchell and Webb, really funny. Funny, in a sad sort of way. It’s still funny. Which is even sadder still.

Solving for authentication and authorisation/permissioning isn’t a trivial issue, and there’s no way I can do it justice here without making this a book-sized post. I just wanted to bookmark it here so that I come back to it in a later post.

Desolation Row

Every human being is unique. Everything a person does is unique. Human beings are also capable of dealing with ambiguity; we may not be good at it, but we’re usually better at it than the machines we are faced with.

Which makes the whole topic of complaints very interesting. As we get better at building the ability to handle ambiguity into our systems, and we stop using phrases like “happy paths” and “edge cases” and outliers”, we’re going to start thinking differently about complaints. There will come a time when people will start paying bug bounties for the best complaints.

And yes, it’s that Gibson case of an unevenly distributed current future.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Even when a company does everything it can to attract customers and to retain them, this is not a forever phenomenon. Companies change. So do customers. There are seasons when the “business model” ( which is often a proxy for discovering values and ethics) chosen by the company suits classes of customers, and seasons when that congruence isn’t there any more. I think it was while reading Rene Mauborgne and Chan Kim’s Blue Ocean Strategy that I first understood that what made a customer”good” or “bad” was really the level of fit with the chosen business model.

When that happens, it’s important to make it a no-fault exit. A genteel parting of the ways. The company should do everything in its power to make that leaving easy and convenient. The business model may change, to make that customer attractive again. The customer may change, in terms of level of fit with the model. Whatever happens, that customer can be an advocate or a naysayer. (It’s probably the only context in which some form of NPS really makes sense to me).

Offboarding is as important as onboarding. When I’m at a restaurant for the first time, I make a point of quietly comparing how they welcome me and how they see me off. How long it takes for me to be shown to my table, for drinks orders to be taken, for food orders to be taken. If all that happens in good time, the restaurant builds a lot of leeway into my tolerance for delay when it comes to actually being served the meal. Then, when it’s time for me to leave, to pay the bill, I start a new counter. The time taken to present me with the bill and to collect payment. It has to be quick if they are to see me return.

Included in that offboarding process is the visual check that everyone enjoyed their meal; the offer of “doggie bags” or equivalent; the staffing of coat checks and lockers and whatever ; the ease with which transport is arranged or advice given. When it comes to off boarding, I Shall Be Released is more the order of the day. Otherwise It’s All Over is the refrain, and you’ve not just lost the customer, you’ve compounded the problem by ensuring they will never return.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

More on engagement



An interesting word. A big word. Used in many contexts. So I thought I’d check on the etymology. (Mostly taken, with some liberty in how I’ve edited or presented it, from Oxford Languages, as provided online by Google).

A gage. Noun. A valued object deposited as a guarantee of good faith. A pledge, especially a glove, thrown down as a symbol of a challenge to fight.

To gage. Verb. To offer an object, even one’s life, as a guarantee of good faith.

To engage. Verb. To occupy or attract (someone’s interest or attention); to participate or become involved in; to establish a meaningful contact or connection with; to arrange to employ or hire (someone); to pledge or enter into a contract to do something; to reserve in advance; to move into position so as to come into operation; to bring together preparatory to fighting.

Engagement. Noun. A legal or moral obligation.

An obligation. A guarantee of good faith. Between people.

That’s all very good from an etymological sense. But I’d like to make a gentle adjustment to one of the definitions. In the “to occupy or attract” definition, rather than just cover “someone’s interest or attention”, I would add the word “intention”. If you want to know more, read Doc Searls on Attention is Not a Commodity. Better still, read his book on the Intention Economy.

Purpose, and the consequences of purpose

An engagement is a commitment, at the very least to the provision of one’s attention. Which, as Doc said, isn’t a commodity.

Since engagement is obligation, there is an expectation, however soft, moral or legal, that some action will follow. In many cases that action is a transaction, an exchange of value.

So people try and engage people, in order to gain some commitment to perform some later action. Let’s now look at how that happens.


People engage when they feel valued, when they feel their dignity is intact, when they feel respected.The context doesn’t matter. For dignity to be present, something akin to mutual respect and tolerance must be present. So whether it’s face to face, on the phone, via a chat system, using asynchronous messaging or even in self-service mode, the person being engaged must feel valued. Otherwise he or she won’t feel engaged.

How often have you been at a shop or supermarket where there are a bunch of people queueing up to use self-service tills, often aided and abetted by someone queue-managing and providing assistance where needed? It looks smooth. And seems to work.


But it’s not smooth. Anything but. For some reason, they can’t make the thingummybob work.

It’s not just at the shop till. A self-service machine on a railway platform. A parking ticket machine. A modern “cashless” drinks dispenser. And, heaven forfend, a passport or boarding pass or ticket scanner at a turnstile-like choke point.

The blasted thing doesn’t work. Just. Doesn’t. Work.

They feel their dignity being torn away from them. In frustration they make mistakes that compound whatever was failing before (which was often not their fault). They watch people on either side of them pass through without effort, and feel judged. They’re made to feel small, inadequate. Stupid. They’re embarrassed at having to go back and to ask for help. They feel irritated at being delayed.

It only has to happen once or twice before they vow never to go down the self-serve route again. And what happens is that there are large queues at the “manned” counters, while the self-serve queues get even smaller. And those in the counter queue imagine the smirks of the I’m-All-Right-Jacks sailing by.

Imagine. Because they’ve had their dignity torn away.

I see this so often at the e-passport gates. What a way to welcome people to a country. Strip them of their dignity even before they’ve set foot in the land they’re about to visit.

When you see self-service counters readily available, and long queues at the full-service counters, spare a thought for why that happens so often.

Fairness and security

As the saying goes, people buy from people, people sell to people. The exchange of value is an act clothed in vulnerability. People want to be sure they’re not being hoodwinked. They don’t want to feel pressured into a purchase. They want to be sure that when they part with money, they’re going to get what they expect in return.

So they want to know that the transaction they are about to perform is “safe”.

But they have all kinds of insecurities. Is the price fair? Are they wasting money? If it’s an online purchase, is the seller trustworthy? Will they get their goods? If’s it’s self-service, will the machine “eat their money”? Did they press the right buttons? If it’s a touch screen, and it’s doing nothing, is it their fault? Are their hands too clammy? If it’s one of those new-fangled cashless machines, will their card work? Will they put it in the right slot? When they can’t read (or understand) what it’s saying, will they know what to do?

Are they buying the right ticket for their journey? Or are they being silly and leaving money on the table? Questions, questions. Why do they feel so inadequate?

Every time I go to an airport, every time I’m at a medical centre or a hospital, every time I’m at a railway station, every time I’m at a supermarket, I see the look. People staring wistfully at the self-serve counters as they queue up elsewhere. People glancing knowingly at the spectacle of someone arguing with the machine as it gobbles their money and returns zilch. The retail equivalent of the arcade game’s TILT warning coming on as they try and manhandle the beast.

We shouldn’t be building systems that make people feel insecure, inadequate, cheated. Changes to much of what we do take time. And education. And time. And assistance. And time. And good design. And time. And iteration.

There was a time when people didn’t use cashpoints and instead went in to the bank branch. There was a time when people didn’t use cards and preferred cash instead. There was a time when people went to shops and tried things on, tried using things, before buying them. There was a time.

Of course things have improved. Of course we can expect things to continue improving. But.

if we really want things to improve, we need to ensure that the way we engage with people preserves their dignity and their sense of security. We need to ensure that the transitions we make aid and abet that preservation of dignity. We need to ensure that transition times reflect that.

The role of education

Good design always helps. But there’s more needed when it comes to explanations and cues and button descriptions and what-have-you. To paraphrase Kristofferson/Joplin, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose.

When I came to the UK, I’d never seen a supermarket before. I was 23, a university graduate, about to start my second job. The first time I went into a supermarket by myself, it was to buy toothpaste. In Calcutta, I went to the neighbourhood store and asked for toothpaste and got toothpaste. They didn’t really ask me what kind I wanted. If I wanted a particular brand I would have said so. But I didn’t have to face that paradox of choice.

So when I entered the supermarket, and found that toothpaste and related products took up an entire aisle, I picked up the first thing I saw, ran to the counter, paid for it, and high-tailed it home. It was a harrowing experience. Made all the more interesting when I found out that my newly-acquired stand-up toothpaste dispenser was for dentures. It took me a while before I returned to the supermarket to buy anything. The local corner shop was closer to my cultural needs, even if it was expensive: it was convenient.

I keep hearing tales that people don’t do things because they’re not aware or informed or know how to. There’s an inbuilt inertia in changing provider in so many markets, not because of a deep trust in the existing provider, but of a fear that the process of change is fraught with opportunities for embarrassment.

Not everyone has an intuitive understanding of everything. We have people from very different backgrounds, ages, experiences and abilities, all being shoehorned into digitally-literate rational-actor superstars. Not everyone has the same eyesight, the same ability to use touch screens, the same facility with modern card systems, the same nimbleness with fat fingers on tiny buttons.

Some conclusions

Last time I wrote about this, I spent time sharing my thoughts on how we appear to value digital engagement while trying our darnedest to reduce analogue engagement. How the conversations that really build relationships are diminished, how the information flow is weakened, and how markets are messed up in consequence.

This time I’ve tried to look at what underpins engagement, the importance of dignity and security and trust.

When I was young, I was deep into the heady utopia of the 1960s, and loved phrases like “suppose they gave a war, and nobody came”.

We’re busy removing all human contact, busy demolishing tokens of trust, busy telling people to shut up and go away.

Busy standardising everyone, invoking a Model-T like “any colour you like as long as it’s black” approach.

Busy anthropomorphising the interfaces we build, while removing the humanity of the underlying “systems”. Systems that used to be made up of humans, interacting in an environment of trust, exchanging vulnerabilities and value.

Take the impending shutdown of ticket offices. Statistics of usage across the country mean nothing, we have to look at individual stations and the demographics of the catchment area. When you’re retired, like me, you tend to travel – most of the time – using a senior railcard. The time of travel matters. The time of return matters. Aggie, who runs the local ticket office, knows this. She knows the Byzantine architecture of ticket pricing. And so she asks me which train I’m going to catch, and which one I intend to come back on. And then smoothly proceeds to sell me the right deal.

A machine can do that. Should do that. But it doesn’t. Time is not a question the machine wants an answer to. It’s just a crude peak or off peak dichotomy, with the occasional “evening out” deal thrown in.

Kindness is courtesy. Kindness promotes dignity. I regularly see the train guard step out on to the platform to see if someone’s running for the train, waiting if needed. I see the train guard help people get on, especially if they’re old and/or laden with cases or wheelchairs or children or grandchildren.

Kindness doesn’t cost much. Civility breeds civility. These things used to be part of our human interactions. In many places they continue to be part of it.

But not everywhere. And we are some way from machines understanding how to be kind. How to watch out for someone needing help. How to be patient. How to provide warmth and encouragement. How to laugh with the community they are part of. How to understand community in the first place.

I am grateful for all the things that I can do in a digital world, things that were really hard to do in the analogue world, or in earlier digital forms. There are many. Too many to list here. Probably fodder for another post one day.

But today, I wanted to remind people of our privileged status, and to have some consideration for those that are are being disenfranchised, made to feel embarrassed and inadequate, and to all intents and purposes excluded more and more from modern life.

Engagement starts with the preservation of dignity.