Making new mistakes


This is part of a map of Calcutta published in 1842. It’s the city I was born in, the city I grew up in, the city that was my home for the first twenty-three years of my life. A city I remember with fond memories and one I visit with joy in my heart. [Incidentally, it’s a map whose original is safely with me, and whose copyright might just have expired by now, 175 years later…]

The city shown above is a very different city from the one I grew up in.

I was born in Lower Circular Road, Sealdah, in 1957. A few years later, after the death of his father, my father moved us to Hindustan Park, Ballygunge, and that’s where I stayed till 1969. That would have meant nothing to the people who lived in Calcutta when the map was drawn. There wasn’t much happening in Ballygunge then. Fields.

The house I was born in had a bloody great railway station close by. It didn’t start getting built till 1869. The Jesuit school and college I went to, St Xavier’s, aren’t on the map either. All you see are what I think are the grounds to the Bishop’s Palace, some of which became my alma mater in 1860.

The house I inhabited during my last decade in Calcutta, on Moira Street, wasn’t built by then. But the road existed. Theatre Road is on the map, with a massive theatre at the Chowringhee end. The road was still there when I was there, but sans theatre. Free School Street, where I could buy secondhand books and albums cheaply, is shown; it then still had a Free School on it; I know the road but never saw the school.

I whiled away many hours in the New Market, Lindsay Street. That didn’t get built till 1874, more than thirty years after the map above. Fenwick’s Bazaar, the reason why New Market was “new”, doesn’t make the grade, either nonexistent or too small to count.

Victoria Memorial, another place I spent many hours in, doesn’t make the map. Not surprising, since Victoria was very much alive and not a subject of memorials when the map was drawn. She would get her memorial later, built between 1906 and 1921.

I rarely left Calcutta during my time there; when I did, it was usually by train, from Howrah Station. I have wonderful memories of that place, the sights, sounds and smells. Buying platform tickets in large quantities as we greeted or saw off family members. Remembering where the car was parked, off Platform 9, always for some reason near a damp part of the platform, and never far from a bookseller. Watching the redshirted coolies go about their business, as kitchen-sink holdalls and trunks were transported along with their kitchen-sink owners.

No Howrah Station on the map. Hadn’t been built. If it had been built, it would have been a job getting there. No Howrah Bridge there. That would come later.

No Lansdowne Road, where Miss P. Hartley set up her school in a converted stables, my happy home from 1963-1965. That was opposite where Gyan Singh used to live, the Gyan who influenced my taste in music more than anyone else, the Gyan who married my cousin Jayashree (who was almost as big an influence on my musical taste), the Gyan whose son is the Singh in Parekh and Singh. The Gyan I still miss. (And Jayashree, get well soon!).


The Calcutta of the map is a very different Calcutta from the one I grew up in.

Just like today.

The Calcutta of today is also one that’s very different from the one I grew up in.

This post is not a wallowing-in-nostalgia post. Instead, what I’m trying to do is to emphasise the importance of knowing past contexts.

Esther Dyson, someone I admire greatly, someone I’ve learnt a lot from listening to, reading and observing, used to sign off her emails with “Always make new mistakes”. I loved that. It made complete sense in the “I have not failed, I have found ten thousand ways that do not work” mould.

To make new mistakes, you must know what the old mistakes were. To interpret an action as a mistake, context is critical. Without that the correct lesson isn’t learnt, and we get into a “history repeats itself” cycle.

Every organisation I join, every organisation I spend time with, I try and understand what went on earlier. The context in which prior decisions were made. The assumptions, the consequences. It is only in that hindsight that the unintention of the consequences becomes clear.

Without that contextual awareness of the decisions and the history, I can’t be sure I’m making new mistakes.

Much has been made of the need for organisations to become learning organisations. A learning organisation is a failing organisation. It must be a failing organisation, but with a difference. Failures aren’t repeated. They are learnt from.

Many organisations are set up to militate against failure. That militancy is deep in organisation culture. And in that very militancy lie the roots of real failure, the failure that comes from not learning.

Making new mistakes is hard if you don’t know about the mistakes of the past. You don’t need to re-make the mistakes of the past in order to learn from them. But you must know about them. And know the context in which they were made.

That requires a cultural willingness to accept mistakes, to record them, to understand the context in which they were made, and to understand what was done to deal with the root cause.

Not all the maps I study are geographical in nature. Some of them aren’t maps. Some aren’t even written. But they all give me context in which to understand and learn from past mistakes.

So that I can keep making new ones.




musing about mise-en-place

If you know me well then you know I love to cook.

When I cook, one of the things I do is based on what professional chefs call mise en place.

Take yesterday for example. I was cooking a ragu for the family; it wasn’t gramigna alla salsiccia, my usual favourite, because I couldn’t get the gramigna and didn’t have time to make the pasta from fresh. So I got some fresh egg spaghetti instead … especially since my grandson adores spaghetti. The two-year-old makes the demolition of spaghetti an art form, as only two-year-olds can.

But I stayed true to making the ragu a salsiccia of sorts. And I wanted to make sure the sauce was allowed to cook for at least six hours, preferably more like eight. So I got started yesterday morning, and the first thing I did was this:

I laid out the ingredients. You can’t see the sausage meat or the pork mince or the beef mince (they’re all still in the fridge) nor can you see the milk (which was keeping the meat company in the fridge, in separate compartments of course).

I try and do it every time I cook; it’s something that professional chefs do. I’m lucky enough to have visited many great chefs at work in their kitchens, and privileged to call a number of them good friends. If they think something’s a good idea, whom am I to argue?

I find the whole process of preparing the mise-en-place instructive, often uplifting, sometimes even cathartic. Preparing the ingredients by hand gets you involved in the cooking in ways that you just couldn’t otherwise. For example, you get to really know the aroma released by a herb when you crush or tear it by hand; you get to feel the texture of the soffrito ingredients, a feeling that helps you figure out when they are truly soffrito, under-fried. And if you’re like me, you graze not-quite-absentmindedly on the leftovers while you peel, chop and crush. By the time you’ve laid all the ingredients out you have a heightened sense of the smell, taste and texture of the dish.

From a practical viewpoint, you get to perform a visual check, a quick way to confirm that everything is in its place and that there’s a place for everything. So there’s no oopsing and traipsing off to get the missing ingredient, you can proceed serenely.

There’s also something else. If you do this every time you cook a particular dish, you get a real feel for proportion, for the relationships between the various ingredients. When you couple this “proportion” knowledge with the “smell, taste and texture” from the process of preparation, you have something very powerful: you can experiment with accentuating or diminishing the character of the dish in subtle ways, because you know something about how they fit together. You know it deep inside you.

I love music but wouldn’t call myself a musician. A crass amateur guitarist at best. When I see real musicians, I know they feel their way about a piece of music in a similar way: they know, instinctively, what goes with what, and how they can vary things, the proportions, the sequences, the lot. I have no such feel for music. Even though I love music, I love musical instruments, I love listening to music, I love going to concerts. Even though I have good friends (including close relatives) who are really talented. (For example, I’m at the Dylan concert on Tuesday, and watching  my nephew’s band Parekh and Singh a week or two later. Check them out. Really looking forward to both events).

When you’re cooking something like a ragu, there’re a few added benefits. You can wash and clear away all the utensils while you’re putting the sauce through its early paces, as it does its egg-larva-pupa-imago transformation. Which looks a bit like this, going clockwise from top left:

I don’t taste the sauce while it’s in the first two quadrants; I need to be sure the meat is cooked sufficiently before I intervene. But I smell it all the way. For sure. And I stir it regularly to get a sense of the texture. If interventions are required, the earlier I know about it the better.

By the time the sauce is ready for the taste test I will have laid the table, set out drinks, put away the preparation utensils and started getting together the serving dishes and ladles and spoons and suchlike. There’s a variant of the mise-en-place at this point, when you get to do visual checks on the empty serving dishes. Parmesan? Check. Pasta? Check. Salad? Check. Kevin? Kevin!

Yes, cooking like this can be edifying, uplifting, sometimes even cathartic.

But it’s not just about cooking. I found myself doing something very similar when I went travelling. I would lay out the things I needed, first in a list, then in a visual presentation, then get going. Flying out early tomorrow morning? Pack and get clothes out tonight. That sort of thing.

There’s something about this whole discipline that I like thinking about when it comes to getting things done. The overall population of tasks. What’s mandatory, what’s optional. The relationships and proportions. Subgroups and dependencies. What you can vary and when, in what proportion. The effect it will have. The need to test regularly. The knowledge of how to act on the feedback. The minimum time. The maximum time. The optimal time.

What mise en place does for me is to remind me about the power of the senses in all this. How sight and sound and smell and touch help me. And what that means in the context of things other than cooking. The “muscle memory” of getting things done. The synaesthetic aspects, the sanity checks, the smell tests, all of which come from practice and observation and learning.

The principal reason I cook is because I enjoy cooking. And eating. And serving others what I’ve prepared.

But there are other things I learn at the same time. Which makes it all so pleasurable.

There’s something happening here

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth

People keep telling me Twitter is dead. And yet.

When I woke up this morning I saw that a number of friends had DMed me overnight. That in itself was not unusual. What was unusual was that a handful of them had pointed me to a particular conversation that was happening on twitter:


There’s something happening here.

I’d never heard of Pookleblinky before today.

And I’m very glad that some of my friends bothered to point me towards this conversation.

For all this to have happened, a few things had to be true. I had to be connected to people who knew my interests. I had to be connected to people who had the time and inclination to tell me when something that would interest me surfaced somewhere. There had to be a “somewhere” where conversations like the one started by Pookleblinky could be formed, shared, expanded.

There are many social networks. There are many places where such conversations take place, where many people can participate in those conversations, and where the conversations can be shared. There are better and better tools to be used to find and to recommend such conversations.


What happened overnight has an elegance and a simplicity that will endure.

When I want bursty single-topic conversations with meaningful contribution by a decent cross-section of people, unpolluted by off-topic rants,  and often embedded with links to “long” or TL;DR material (for those interested in delving into a topic) Twitter remains the place to go to.

There’s still something happening here.

What it is ain’t exactly clear.




Oh frabjous day


Today may turn out to be a very important day in the world of Test cricket. Regular readers will know that I am no fan of the Decision Review System (DRS). While I’m all for sensible use of technology in sport, I cannot abide the way “Umpire’s Call” is designed to work. It’s an abomination.

Until today, I couldn’t see a simple way out. DRS was here to stay, and with it the Umpire’s Call, or so it seemed. A constant threat, with the ability to mar, to scar, what would otherwise have been an enjoyable day’s cricket.

Today all that changed at Dharamsala, during the Fourth (and deciding) Test between India and Australia. It couldn’t have happened in a nicer place.


Australia won the toss and elected to bat. They were bowled out for precisely 300 in 88.3 overs. India faced just one over, ending the day at 0 for 0.

A full day’s play. A decent over rate. A decent run rate. 10 wickets. 300 runs. A fabulous century by one of the finest cricketers plying his trade at present. A glorious debut by a young spinner. An enthralling contest. A splendid time is guaranteed for all. Being for the benefit of all and sundry, not just Mr Kite.

And not a single review. Australia did not review any of the ten wickets they lost. India didn’t have anything to review; I can remember one instance when Bhuvaneswar Kumar thought about it, but decided against it.

There was a dearth of spurious appeals. At least that’s the way it looked to me, watching from thousands of miles away.

The batsmen all walked. Something deep in the spirit of the game, something that’s been eroding of late. [I still cringe at the memory of what Stuart Broad did. Not walking was sin enough. Not walking because the fielding side “had no reviews left”, that called for the cricketing equivalent of bell, book and candle.]

None of the batsmen was given out LBW, in a full day’s cricket, with ten wickets falling. This too on the subcontinent, with a bunch of spinners doing their bit for God and country. Unheard-of.

That’s surely a record in times of DRS, and may have been quite rare even before that.

Bowling negatively, staying well outside the off stump, trying to bore the daylights out of batsmen and spectators, wishing and willing them to lose patience and hang their bat out; slowing the over rate down to abysmal levels; using every trick in the book (and often ones not in the book) to rough up one side of the ball and to shine the other; appealing whimsically, irrelevantly and even irritatingly; running on to the pitch while bowling in the fourth innings; all this and more; there is much that despoils the game, brings it into disrepute.

Today was a welcome break from all that nonsense.

For that, I have to thank the two teams and the officials. Whatever the result, they’ve given us the example of a whole day’s cricket the way it should be played.

And it came with a bonus. How do you avoid the abomination of DRS? Get the batsmen out unambiguously, unequivocally, without the need for an LBW decision.

There’s hope yet for cricket, particularly Test cricket.




Voyages of discovery

Of late, I’ve been spending quite some time thinking about longitudinal studies; a number of you have engaged with me with encouraging feedback after my most recent post on this, on the impact of change and the time it takes to assess that impact. There are many reasons for this, but there’s a principal one. Polarised debate, often on ideological grounds, seems to have become more common in the recent past. It’s something I wrote about a number of times recently:  in Thinking About 2015 two years ago, in Routing Around Obstacles in April last year, in and in Going To The Match at the end of last year.

When debate is just ideology versus ideology, and the facts don’t matter, we live our lives in a house divided against itself.  [Personally, I think that this particular speech of Lincoln’s, while not as well-known as the Gettysburg Address, deserves more airtime].

I think it was James Surowiecki, writing in the New Yorker, who wrote about Brexiteers defending their position on ideological grounds (to do with sovereignty of border and law), largely ignoring economic arguments, and then strangely expecting the rest of Europe to negotiate solely on economic grounds rather than ideological ones. The paraphrase is mine, not his, apologies for any unintended misinterpretation.

Just this morning, I was reading about the drought affecting Haute-Savoie. Some key phrases:

  • Experts said that last month was the driest December in Haute-Savoie for 135 years, with just 0.2mm of rain falling in Annecy.
  • And, last week, a number of resorts recorded their 50th day without natural snowfall.
  • Serge Taboulot, head meteorologist for the northern Alps at Météo France, said: “This is an unprecedented drought. We have data from the 19th century in Annecy, and we have never seen such a situation before.”
  • On some slopes the snow cover was the worst for 20 years, he added.
  • Ninety per cent of French mountains were said to be affected after below-average snowfall since the summer.


Hmmm. Doesn’t look much like a Chinese conspiracy to me. But then even that is not a fair statement to make, I show a bias. Unless we start looking at the data, everything that is debated will be seen as a conspiracy by one ideology or another.

As I wrote yesterday, one way of resolving this tension is to have good data. Now that’s a fine and dandy thing to say going forward, on a “day zero” basis. The day we announce the start of the two-year clock for Brexit qualifies as a day zero. So will the actual exit. The day Trump was elected qualifies as a day zero. So will the day he is inaugurated.

Problems where we can start collecting data sensibly are tractable, even though we should expect considerable lobbying by those who would prefer that society cannot judge them even in hindsight.

What I’m currently intrigued by is the role of the archivist. Sometimes the archivist is an unintended one. For example, I’ve been seeing reports for well over a decade that ships’ logs from the 18th and 19th centuries have reliable and consistent data to help us understand aspects of climate change.

Sometimes the archivist is an intended one, carrying out the duties of an under appreciated profession. I’ve been able to find an application for a replacement passport made by my grandfather in the UK, and until then I didn’t even know he’d been to the UK decades before I was born. I’ve found records for erstwhile relatives making their first passage to India in the 1950s. All this because we are able to get access to historical information: birth and death registers, citizenship records, journey-related information, causes of death, migration patterns, court papers, telephone directories, myriad documents that were considered public records that were carefully archived and later made public.

Sometimes the archivist is accidental-on-purpose, carefully preserving records that were originally protected against public cynosure, then released after some or other oddly-determined cooling-off period.

Sometimes what is archived for one reason is made available for another; I hope to see the open data movement start catalysing such events in the next five years or so, as enlightened holders of valuable data sets make that data available to all and sundry after assessing that the public good is not counteracted by private harm.

And sometimes the archivist is an amateur. People like you and me. Particularly people who are getting on a bit. Our stories, shared while we can still remember and still articulate what we remember. What we remember about how we lived when we were young, what we learnt at our forebears’ knees, what stories they shared with us.

Making sense out of our collective stories used to be intractable. Technological advances suggest that this problem is getting more and more solvable.

It goes beyond our stories, we all have artefacts to share. eBay and Etsy are not the only games in town for where old artefacts go to die. Just like we learnt to collect and recycle our rubbish, we will learn to collect and archive our past. There is a Silent Spring waiting to be written about this. Maybe someone who reads this will go do it.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool collector, and over the years I’ve amassed quite deep collections of a very small number of things in very narrow topics. The East India Company and the Raj. Detective fiction since Poe and Wilkie Collins. Anything and everything to do with Don Quixote. Anything and everything to do with PG Wodehouse. The autographs of 20th century scientists I revere. Analogue versions of modern digital equipment. Cricket bats signed by batsmen I revere, and at least one bat signed by bowlers I revere.

Collecting is in itself not archiving, not unless you know what’s there, you can find it, you know and can attest to its provenance, and you have taken steps to take care of it. Which also means understanding if, when and how to cull the collection.

A good library is like a good garden; weeding is essential.

Let me take a walk into the wild here. And talk about how I discovered music.

We used to have an old gramophone at home. [Not the one with the crank handle and the big horn and the steel needles in a small box: I have a few of those now]. What we had was something very late-fifties/early sixties. A Garrard turntable, with a big central spindle, in the middle of what looked like a very large chest-like cabinet, opening from the top. Two speakers, one on either side, with the speaker cloth showing through the tracery of carved wood that decorated the front of the cabinet. A valve amplifier you couldn’t see in daylight, even though you smelt it warming up; you could, however, see it when it wasn’t daylight. In those days all valves were red at night.

Along with that gramophone were some albums. A whole bunch of “78s”, lacquer records from the 20s to the 50s. Another bunch of “10-inchers”, 33RPM albums that were somehow stunted in their growth. A large bunch of traditional 12″ classical albums. A smaller bunch of LPs with “modern” music. An even smaller handful of 45s. And that was it.

The 78s included some classical, some jazz and some more popular and folksy. I can only remember being entranced by a handful, Hernando’s Hideaway and Tom Dooley come quickly to mind.

The 10-inchers included a wonderful Perry Como (with Don’t Get The Stars Get In Your Eyes), a couple of Glenn Millers, Danny Kaye doing I’m Late, even a saucyish Ruth Wallis singing Down In The Indies amongst other songs.

The classical music 12-inchers covered most of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, with bits and bobs of Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov. There were a decent bunch of jazz albums, quite a few Ella Fitzgerald and a similar number of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton, that kind of thing. And then there were a few oddball LPs as well. Pat Boone with Bernardine, Love Letters in The Sand, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, Don’t Forbid Me, April Love, Chains Of Love, Anastasia, Why Baby Why and so on. Edmondo Ros and Bongos from the South. Burl Ives at Carnegie Hall. My Fair Lady. South Pacific. The Pajama Game.

And a tiny handful of 45s. Summer Wine. Strangers in the Night. These Boots Were Made for Walking.

I can remember a couple of Hindi music albums as well. Sangam was one of them.

That was my day zero for music.

From that time on, I can remember precisely when someone I listened to entered my life. The day an uncle dropped in Peter Paul and Mary’s In the Wind, along with Brubeck’s Time Out. The day I went to the local record shop, Sonorous, and my father bought me A Hard Day’s Night.

From my music listening perspective, that was that for the period 1957-1968. We moved house in 1969, and things changed. The radio became more of an introducer of music. My cousin Jayashree became an arbiter of taste. Her husband, Gyan, sadly no longer with us, became a key influence on what I listened to. More of all this later.

Why am I bothering to share this? Only to make a point.

What you remember has value. Put it down somewhere. Be diligent about it. Particularly when it comes to how you lived, what relationship meant to you. What trust meant to you. What community meant to you. What schooldays were like, what school friends were like. What your childhood illnesses and medications were. What passed for everyday food and what passed for special treats. How you kept yourself occupied. What study was like, what play was like. How you kept yourself amused. Where and how you travelled. Whom you spent time with. What you read, what you watched, what you listened to.

What the weather was like. How much things cost. What skills you learnt and when.

What mattered to you. Why.

What you remember has value.

What we remember has value.

But we have to learn some basic skills in archiving in order to make what we remember useful for generations to come.

This is not meant to be a narcissistic post. If it’s come across like that, I have screwed up. Big time. My intent in sharing this is only to suggest that alongside the professional archivist and the accidental archivist, we all need to become amateur archivists. That is how we are going to build pictures of the past in order to understand the impact of things that were decided a few decades ago, and help understand things that are being decided and things that will be decided.






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