Going to the match: more thoughts on tolerance




I wonder what LS Lowry would have made of it. As a teenager in Calcutta during the 1960s and 1970s, I never quite experienced the sensation of “going to the match” the way that Lowry had portrayed.


We went to the matches.

Matches, plural. Not match. Because all the stadia were in the same area. To borrow a simile from the world of horse-racing, they were so close you could have covered all of them with a blanket.

In those days there were three main teams, East Bengal, Mohan Began and Mohammedan Sporting. The league only consisted of ten or twelve teams, so they played each other quite a few times. The sporting schedule had not been destroyed by the ravages of TV scheduling, so all matches took place at the same time on the same day.

And we all went to the matches. One stream of people, comprised of supporters of all the clubs. Intermingled. Unsegregated.


There was occasional violence, but it was rare. Keeping the peace was seen as a collective responsibility, a social responsibility. It worked. Because there were social brakes. We even called that violence “anti-social behaviour”.

When I came to England in 1980 I lived in Blundellsands, near Liverpool, for a while. It was only a matter of time before I made my way to Stanley Park for the first time and chose one of the clubs there as “my” club. I happened to choose Liverpool FC because the story of Bill Shankly had travelled as far as Calcutta, and because I’d heard of Keegan and Dalglish et al.


When I went for my first “derby”, I felt at home. It felt like Calcutta again. For sure Anfield was full of Liverpool fans, but there was a considerable number of Everton fans as well. And for the most part they sat together, unsegregated.

I have good friends who are Everton supporters, and I treasure the friendship. These things are important.

It’s not always perfect. I have seen violence at Merseyside derbies, it’s been there before and it will be there again. Despite those forays into uncivil behaviour, I think it remains largely true that Everton and Liverpool supporters heave learnt to live with each other, able to compete without the need for contempt.

If not for this, households and families would otherwise be riven beyond redemption. And that’s not a good thing.

This year, we’ve had one or two fairly significant “polarising” events: the “Brexit” referendum in the UK, the US Presidential election. Once again, households and families had the risk of being riven. If we allowed them to be.

We cannot allow that. We must not allow that.

I live with people who voted to leave and with people who voted to remain. I count both sets among my friends.

I work with people who voted Republican and with people who voted Democrat. I count both sets among my friends.

Democracy is about the 100% rather than about the 51% or the 49%. Or whatever other split you care to come up with.

There was a time when ballots were open, often oral. But that created the risk of corruption using force or finance or fear. The move to secret ballots was a partial response. It came with its weaknesses and corruptions as well. More recently, as ballots are often numbered and associated with registered voter numbers, the secrecy of the ballot is threatened.

What matters is not the secrecy of the ballot. What matters is the right and ability to cast one’s vote without fear or favour. If we lose that we lose some key aspects of civilisation.

I am not a deep student of politics, but I do get the sense that of late, politicians appear to be more interested in being re-elected, in ensuring their party stays in power, to the detriment of actually serving the electorate, which by the way is the 100% and not one side or another. So we see gerrymandering, the creation of landslide returning districts and constituencies, the concentration of neighbourhoods into homogeneous single-party voter groups.

Sustaining power that way comes with an ugly consequence, 21st century tribalism at its worst. I suspect it’s going to get worse before it gets better. More on that specific thread in the months to come, if I can bring myself to write in depth about it.

Today’s a day when tradition calls for wishing all of you peace on earth and goodwill to all. Whatever you believe in, I wish you peace. Peace and the ability to be tolerant of people you don’t agree with.

I have read reports that the ancient civilisations of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa showed no trace of weapons or warlike behaviour. That’s yet to be proven, the jury is still out. Cynics would say “and besides, the civilisations aren’t around any more”.

I wish you peace. And the ability to be tolerant of people you don’t agree with. That includes giving them the right to have their opinion.


Joi Bangla



Growing up in Calcutta was an interesting experience. I was there from late 1957 to late 1980. Twenty-three whole years and a little bit more. Never lived anywhere else during that time, though I visited most of the usual places, not just the Delhi, Bombay, Madras “presidencies”, not just the Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Nagpur “satellites” but including the Durgapurs and the Dindiguls, the Asansols and the Agras, the Puris and the Pondicherrys, the Kanpurs and Kharagpurs and Kodaikanals, the Bhopals and the Burdwans.

But I never lived anywhere else. Just Calcutta. Formative years, formative times. Times where there were relatively few real influences on me, few that had a lasting impact: my family; my friends; the school and college I went to; and the city of Calcutta.


Since leaving Calcutta, I’ve spent the next 36 years living in and around London, particularly west London and west of London. Nearly thirty of those years have been in one place, Windsor.

On my next birthday I shall complete six decades on earth. By then I hope to have become a grandfather for the second time.

I love walking. Not just in order to go somewhere. Sometimes the somewhere I want to go is not a somewhere at all, the reason for the walk is the walk. When I go for a walk walk, I think about many things. One of those things is to understand my influences, what makes me do what I do, how long I’ve been doing it, why it matters.

Of late much of my soul-searching has been on the topic of tolerance. Sometimes I think of it as a sense of inclusiveness, as an avoidance of disenfranchisement. But most of the time it’s about not being judgmental. It’s something deep in me, something I can remember as being part of me for a very long time. It made me treat emotions like malice and jealousy as anathema. I could see that my family had a lot to do with my feeling that way, we were a tolerant and inclusive lot. We still are. I could see that my friends and neighbours clearly added to that influence. The school and college I went to definitely played their part. All this seems clear to me.

But there had to be something more. And the more I think about it, I come to the conclusion that that something more was Calcutta. The city of Calcutta. Its people. The ambience and atmosphere. Whatever was in the water.


When I was there it was the capital of tolerance. Passionate argument about anything and everything, but rarely coming to blows. It was normal for me to be in a class with Hindus and Christians, Parsis and Sikhs, Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. It was normal for me to go one week to a Navjote and the next to a Punjabi wedding. It was normal for me to go get intrinsically Jewish food from Nahoums one evening and then to go to Nizams for an as intrinsically Muslim a dish as a beef kati roll.


The city had clear quarters and districts along cultural, even race, lines. You knew when you were in a Bengali part of town, a Marwari area, an Anglo-Indian locality or the ubiquitous Chinatown. Yet you were never an interloper when you went to any and all of them.

You knew when you were in a rich part of the city; you knew when you were deep in the slums; sometimes they were so close they nearly overlapped. But you could move from one to the other without let or hindrance.

There was always something “political” going on. The shadow of the Naxalite movement was strong during my teens, though I’d been too young to really experience it at its peak. And there was always a “democratically elected Communist party” doing what it could, niggling forever at the central “Congress”. [My father had brought me up reading, and enjoying reading, the Don Camillo series by Giovanni Guareschi. I tend to think we had our own little Po valley village in Bengal, with our own Don Camillo and our own Peppone.]


The last time I visited Calcutta with my family was six years ago, Christmas 2010. [I have been since, but on my own]. We had our Christmas meal as an extended family, the Rangaswamis and the Subramaniams (our cousins) with the Sillimans and the Kapoors (neighbours we’ve known since the late 1960s). South Indians and Punjabis and Baghdadis, Christians and Hindus and Jews, Calcuttans to the core, friends for over fifty years, breaking bread together. [Flower Silliman, who hosted us, could have served me cardboard and not only would I have eaten it, I’d probably have asked for the recipe. An amazing cook].

Maybe I’m looking back at that past, at those formative years in Calcutta, with spectacles tinted deep rose. Maybe.

But I think it’s something else. I really do think that there was something unjudgmental, inclusive, tolerant about the place, something in the very ethos of Calcutta.

I’ve often wondered as to where that ethos came from, what that communal spirit was founded on.

I have a hypothesis.

That very tolerance, the love that characterises Calcutta, is actually the consequence of of dealing with the victims of hate.

There was an attempt at partitioning Bengal in 1905, with all kinds of political reasons, but with the consequence of fomenting hate on sectarian lines. The attempt didn’t last long. But it was resuscitated forty years later, with terrible consequences. Man being very inhuman to man. The Partition Riots scarred everyone who was alive then.

The house I was born in had this unusual sculpture in the driveway. if you looked at it from the right angle, the fused mess of metal pottage resembled an old car. For good reason. It used to be a car. Until it was set alight during the riots, a decade before I was born. The doors of that house (and they seem massive in my memory) bore partition riot scars as well, the marks of battering rams as Hindu hunted Muslim and vice versa.

Whenever I tried to speak to my father about those days, there was silence. And a thousand-yard stare.

That was before I was born.

When I was a teenager, something else happened, tangentially rooted in the same Partition. East Pakistan decided that enough was enough, that it no longer wanted to be connected to West Pakistan, separated as they were by the breadth of India. And Bangladesh was born.

For the third time in Bengal history, for the third time in Calcutta history, we had visitors arriving suddenly and at scale. Millions of visitors.

Millions of visitors, taking refuge from the bloodshed of politics and religion.


When people pour over open land “borders”, men, women and children, carrying what little they can, it’s hard to keep count. When people literally run away from death, it’s hard to stop them.

All I know about the 1905 and 1946-47 Partitions I know from book-learning and from a few rare conversations with eyewitnesses. Estimates vary, but it appears that three or four million people came over the border. And stayed.

I was 13 when the war for Bangladesh took place. When over 10 million people fled the war and crossed over into India. When at least three million of them came to Calcutta (though it felt like thirty).

Everyone mobilised. Refugee camps all over the city. Collections in schools and neighbourhoods. This was a large scale operation. The city was literally overrun.

A crisis. But no drama.

Calcutta just took it in its stride.

That’s how it felt, anyway. Rose-tinted spectacles or not.

The best way I can describe how Calcutta reacted is to tell this story:

Millions of refugees. A city overrun. There are many things that happen during such an event, to do with shortages in food, clothing, shelter and well-being.

One such thing was an outbreak of conjunctivitis.

Suddenly everyone had extremely itchy, streaming, red eyes, crusting over with goo. Very uncomfortable, often quite painful.

And what did Calcutta do?

The conjunctivitis outbreak was named “Joi Bangla”. Humorously, with just a hint of sardonic. After the slogan and war cry of the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi freedom fighters.

Joi Bangla.

Where I learnt about tolerance and about not being judgmental and about seeking to act inclusive to all and disenfranchising of none.

I’m still learning. Events over the past 15 years, ever since the lead-up to the Bush/Blair Iraq War and the various elections held on either side of the Atlantic, these events have tested my resolve. I’ve had to learn not to be judgmental about people being judgmental. Easier said than done. But I’m learning.

We live in interesting times. Whatever your politics, one thing’s for sure. There are problems the world faces that need us to act as one, united, humankind. People can decide that globalisation has had its day and needs to be rolled back. People can decide that the politics of liberals have become irrelevant. People can decide that it’s time to start a second Cold War.

People can decide many things.

But issues to do with climate change aren’t going to go away. Challenges to do with fresh water aren’t going to go away. Challenges to do with nutrition and illness, obesity and immune system deficiencies, aren’t going to go away. Challenges to do with what we’ve done to our food chain aren’t going to go away.

People can decide many things. Yet many critical issues that affect all of us aren’t going to go away.

We’re going to have to work on these issues together. Together.

Without being judgmental of each other, while being tolerant of each other. While making sure we listen to everyone. Not just the 48% or the 52% or the 1% or the 99%. Everyone.

Joi Bangla.


Freewheeling about excavating information and stuff like that

Do you remember enterprise application integration? Those were the days.  First you paid to bury your information in someone’s proprietary silo, then you paid to excavate it from there, then you paid again to bury it again in someone else’s silo. Everybody was happy. Except for the guys paying the bills.

I went to see the guys in Osmosoft yesterday, it’s always a pleasure visiting them. At BT Design, our approach to innovation has a significant community focus: Web21C, now integrated into Ribbit, was formed on that basis; both Osmosoft as well as Ribbit  are excellent examples of what can be done with open multisided platforms.

While I was there, I spent some time with Jeremy Ruston who founded the firm and leads the team. Incidentally, it was good to see Blaine Cook there, I hadn’t seen him since he joined BT. Welcome to the team, Blaine.

When it comes to opensource, Jeremy’s one of the finest brains I know, we’re really privileged to have him. We got to talking, and somehow or the other, one of the topics that came up was the ways and means we have to figure out if someone’s any good, in the context of hiring. After all, there is no strategy in the world that can beat the one that begins “First hire good people”.

When you’re hiring people with experience, the best information used to come from people you knew who’d already worked with her or him. Nothing beats a good recommendation from a trusted domain. You can do all the interviews you want, run all the tests you can find, do all the background searching you feel like; over time, the trusted domain recommendation trumps the rest.

Now obviously this does not work when the person has not worked before, where there is no possibility of a trusted domain recommendation. Which is why people still use tests and interviews and background checks.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Jeremy brought up an issue that he’d spoken to me about quite some time ago, something I’m quite keen on: the use of subversion commit logs as a way of figuring out how good someone is.

And that got me thinking. Here we are, in a world where people are being told: Don’t be silly and record what you do in Facebook; don’t tell people everything you do via Twitter; don’t this; don’t that; after all, the bogeyman will come and get you, all these “facts” about your life will come back to haunt you.

As a counterpoint to this, we have the opensource community approach. Do tell everyone precisely what you are doing, record it in logs that everyone can see. Make sure that the logs are available in perpetuity. After all, how else will people find out how good you are?

Transparency can and should be a good thing. Abundant transparency can and should be a better thing, rather than scarce transparency. Right now we have a lot of scarce transparency; people can find out things about you, but only some people. Which would be fine, if you could choose who the people were. Do you have any idea who can access your credit rating? Your academic records? Do you have any idea who decided that?

Scarce information of this sort leads to secrets and lies and keeps whole industries occupied. Maybe we need to understand more about how the opensource community works. Which, incidentally, is one of the reasons why BT chose to champion Osmosoft.

An aside: David Cushman, whom I’d known electronically for a while, tweeted the likelihood of his being near the new Osmosoft offices around the time of my visit, so it made sense to connect up with him as well. It was good to meet him, and it reminded me of something I tweeted a few days ago. How things change. In the old days relationships began face to face and over time moved into remote and virtual and electronic. Nowadays that process has been reversed. Quite often, you’ve known someone electronically for a while, then you get to meet them. Intriguing.

Finally, my thanks to gapingvoid for the illustration, which I vaguely remembered as “Excavation 47”. It was a strange title so it stuck. Which reminds me, I have to start saving up to buy one of his lithographs, they’re must-haves.

Time to bespeak up and defend the language

We live in interesting times.

Last week, it was reported that the Advertising Standards Authority had decreed that the word “bespoke” could now be used to describe suits that weren’t entirely handmade.

Moustache quivering in indignation, I went over to Wikipedia to see what it said about the word “bespoke”:

Bespoke is usually a British English term for tailored clothing made at a customer’s behest, and exactly to the customer’s specification. Bespoke clothing is created without use of a pre-existing pattern, differentiating it from made to measure, which alters a standard-sized pattern to fit the customer.

I’ve known a number of bespoke tailors over the years; one of them, Thomas Mahon, even has his own blog. I count him as a friend, so I thought I’d go and check him out, see if he had anything to say about the subject. And this is what I found:

A lot of people use the terms “bespoke” and “made-to-measure” interchangeably. They are mistaken.

‘Bespoke’ is actually a term which dates from the 17th century, when tailors held the full lengths of cloth in their premises.

When a customer chose a length of material, it was said to have “been spoken for”. Hence a tailor who makes your clothes individually, to your specific personal requirements, is called “bespoke”. This is unlike “made-to-measure”, which simply uses a basic, pre-existing template pattern, which is then adjusted to roughly your individual measurements.

What the ASA has done is in effect allowing the nice distinctions between phrases like “bespoke” and “made-to-measure” to disappear, and for no good reason. Language does evolve, and we need to be adaptable about it. But that does not mean we have to do stupid things with language. Allowing “made-to-measure” and “bespoke” to be used synonymously is inaccurate and unnecessary. It is the equivalent of allowing yogurt to be called vegetarian while containing beef gelatin. Strange world we live in.

Even more strange when you consider the other craftsmen that use the word “bespoke”. Software engineers. Ironic, isn’t it? People buy software they call “off-the-shelf”, then mangle it amazingly beyond recognition. This happens constantly in the ERP and SCM markets.

But they don’t dare call it bespoke. Because their CFO knows that “bespoke” is also a synonym for “expensive.” They might as well call the software bespoke, given the level of changes they tend to make, but they don’t.

One group of people who use patterns when they shouldn’t, and they want to call a suit bespoke when it isn’t.

Another group of people who don’t use patterns when they should, and they don’t want to call software bespoke when it is.

Go figure.

What does bad look like? And related questions

I was in conversation with an old colleague, Sean Park, a few days ago; with a little bit of luck, we’ll be able to spend a little time together next week in San Francisco, at Supernova. During the conversation, this post by Chris Skinner came up.

First, a few disclaimers.

One, I am not against cyberlibertarians. I count many cyberlibertarians as my friends. In fact I’d even let my daughter marry one. Some people think I am a cyberlibertarian. And I don’t argue with them.

Two, despite all that, I signed up with the UK Border Agency IRIS scheme as soon as I could, use it regularly, and will probably sign up with its equivalent for the US and Europe as soon as I can. So I am not against the technology.

Three, I like what Bruce Schneier has to say about many things, and particularly about things to do with security. This liking predates (by a long way) and is completely unconnected with, our becoming colleagues much later. [Incidentally, we have never met, either as colleagues or before then, although we’ve been in the same room quite a few times. Maybe this will change, we’re both at Supernova.]

Having said all that.

There’s identity and there’s identity. “Identity” covers things I assert about myself, things that only I can assert about myself. It covers things that others assert about me, things that only others can assert about me. It also covers things that I assert, but where my assertion is weak unless it is backed up by someone or something else.

When I say that I like Grateful Dead or Traffic or Crosby Stills Nash and Young or John Mayall or Jim Croce, I am asserting something about myself. A last.fm audioscrobbler attached to iTunes can see whether my listening habits match my stated likes, but it cannot say what I like. That is for me to say. When a bank says that I have a credit rating of X, they are asserting something about me that I cannot assert about myself. When a government gives me a token to help me assert who I am (such as a passport or a driving licence), the government is doing something I couldn’t do as well.

So there’s identity and there’s identity. It’s all the rage, it’s the happening thing, there are now more people working in the identity space than in call centres worldwide. [Doesn’t it feel like that to you?].

And, as Chris Skinner says, it looks like biometrics will become more important, more dominant, more pervasive. Shivers down spine. Collywobbles. Paroxysms of sweat. I begin to get a teensy weensy bit concerned.

Why? Not because I think someone’s going to gouge my eye out and re-use it. Not because I think that someone’s going to chop my finger off. [Yes, there are times and there are places where this can and probably will happen, but in this conversation I consider the Chopping Off argument to be a Red Herring.]

I’ve been concerned about the use of biometrics in everyday life for a few decades now. Nearly 30 years ago, when I worked for Burroughs Corporation, we had a division that manufactured ATMs. And I remember seeing a presentation where people queued up to a hole in the wall to draw money, presented their eyeballs to an even smaller hole in the wall, had their retinas scanned before the hole vomited out cash. And I thought to myself, who designs these things? Who imagines that someone would actually do this? Did they talk to anyone, any would-be customers?

If you want to understand the pros and cons of biometrics, you must read this article in ACM by Bruce. So what if it’s almost a decade old, the points he makes still hold true. It’s an expansion and improvement on an another note by him, written a year earlier in his Crypto-Gram newsletter.

Here are some excerpts:

  • [B]iometrics work well only if the verifier can verify two things: one, that the biometric came from the person at the time of verification, and two, that the biometric matches the master biometric on file. If the system can’t do that, it can’t work
  • Biometrics are unique identifiers, but they are not secrets. You leave your fingerprints on everything you touch, and your iris patterns can be observed anywhere you look.
  • Once someone steals your biometric, it remains stolen for life; there’s no getting back to a secure situation.
  • Biometrics are powerful and useful, but they are not keys. They are not useful when you need the characteristics of a key: secrecy, randomness, the ability to update or destroy.
  • [B]iometrics are necessarily common across different functions. Just as you should never use the same password on two different systems, the same encryption key should not be used for two different applications. If my fingerprint is used to start my car, unlock my medical records, and read my electronic mail, then it’s not hard to imagine some very unsecure situations arising.

As a frequent traveller, I am happy to use biometrics-based processes when it mean my immigration and security queues are shortened significantly. IRIS has been a boon for me.

But if my bank asked me to start using iris recognition based schemes, I would probably change bank.


Now you must be used to people tritely asking you “So what does good look like to you?” [What an appalling question. Why can’t they ask you what you want? I’m old and patient now, so I forgo the temptation to “throw them under that question”, a la that other appalling phrase “throw them under the bus”. Who thinks this unadulterated crap up anyway?]

So humour me for a second and allow me to use the phrase “What does bad look like?” When I use IRIS, “bad” means that someone has managed (a) to get a copy of my iris as stored in some humongous central database somewhere (b) convinced some hardware and software in a booth that he/she is me returning to the UK. Depending on my actual travelling status, that may throw up some conflicts and errors, and the worst that could happen is that I spend some time sorting out the mess when I next pass through. But the facts will be on my side, and I don’t live in a police state. People may be appalled by CCTV Britain, by Guantanamo Bay, by 42 day detentions, but none of that is as scary as The Emergency was to me in 1975-77. Not even close.

It’s not as if someone can leave my iris behind at a crime scene. If someone finds my eyeball rolling around alongside a corpse, the chances are the corpse is me. if someone leaves a photograph of my iris behind as a calling card, not even the Keystone Cops will assume that I’m the likely perpetrator.

So bad doesn’t look too bad in many of these cases.

When it comes to banking, it’s a different story. Bad can look bad. If you’d like a humorous way of finding out why, listen to this clip by Mitchell and Webb. [Oh the humanity. Worth listening to for that line alone.]

We already use biometrics for banking, the common-or-garden signature is a biometric, particularly if you start analysing pressure and time and emphasis and all that jazz. People have tried to forge signatures, and if electronic signatures become more common, then I am sure that people will try even harder to forge signatures.

I try and adapt to changes in the environment around me. For example I think about where I want to use my credit or debit cards so as to minimise the risk of cloning, and avoid the places where I think the risk is high. If my bank said I could use iris recognition in order to withdraw cash, I wouldn’t sign up. I would use other ways. if they said that it was the only way, I would use other banks. Simple as that.

It doesn’t mean that I am against the use of biometrics. Rather, I am against the use of biometrics in environments where the weaknesses of biometrics overwhelm the strengths. As stated before, I use biometrics to enter the UK. And I would be happy to use biometric locks in my front door, as Xeni Jardin refers to here.

As Bruce says in that article, if someone wanted access to my house, they can make a surreptitous copy of my key or throw a rock through my window. They don’t have to cut my finger off.

Biometrics aren’t bad. Biometric banking is already here, as in the use of signatures. But we need to think hard about allowing increased use of biometrics in banking. Because bad could then look very bad.

Let’s be careful out there.