Of ragu and bolognese and Cory Doctorow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about Mario, Pompeii and the internet

I spent some time with the family wandering around Pompeii at the weekend. It was a wonderful experience; while I’d been there before, it was a long time ago: the technology of archaeology has moved forward apace; and I was twenty-five years older. [We’d gone to Sorrento for our honeymoon in 1984. We decided it would be fitting to go back there for our silver anniversary, this time with the children.]

There were many things I learnt, much that was brought to mind. Some of you probably think I read too much Jane Jacobs (and for that matter, Christopher Alexander) for my own good. So be it. I’d happily re-read The Death and Life of Great American Cities every six months or so; if you haven’t discovered Jane Jacobs stop reading now, go to the book-buying web site of your choice and order pretty much anything by her. Alexander’s A Pattern Language is probably somewhat less accessible, but still definitely worth a read.

So what did I learn?

I learnt that the buildings in Pompeii that had arched and domed rooms and gateways fared much better than the rest.

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I learnt that Pompeii was a cosmopolitan place where they’d worked out the importance of using culture-crossing graphics and symbols rather than words.

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I learnt that they had interesting models of re-use: for example, they used the fragments of ceramics smashed in the earthquake of 62AD to form and decorate floors:

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I learnt that they took real care in their design, making the roads work as rainwater escapes as well: the city was built on igneous rock which was less than perfect as a flood plain. But then it would be hard for people to cross the streets, so they embedded the streets with crossing stones at regular intervals:

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I learnt that they used natural materials as cat’s eyes, embedding pavements and floors with reflective stones as shown below:

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I learnt that they cared about waste and recycling, saw what they built under the rooms (and for that matter how they reused urine as fertiliser).

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I learnt that they had open standards and component architecture. For example, they had 38 different sizes of container for food and drink, and everyone used the same sizes to mean the same things:

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I learnt that they did all this with time for beauty and enjoyment in their architecture and layout:

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I learnt that they did all this under the shadow of Vesuvius, a fragile and beautiful peace in the presence of danger:

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But you know what? I could have learnt all of this from a book. I could have learnt all this from the internet.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Mario. 65 years old this year. Been doing the job of personal tour guide for 48 years. A wonderful, passionate man, passionate about everything he does, passionate about Pompeii, its history and culture, passionate about archaeology, passionate about learning. Someone who has seen the impact of bad decisions from an archaeological perspective, someone who cares enough to celebrate the learning that comes from those decisions.

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All this time I was seeing things in Pompeii, and thinking about the internet.

But Mario changed all that. He saw things in the internet and started thinking of Pompeii.

You see, Mario’s stopping work for a year or two. He’s not retiring, even though he’s 65. He’s going back to school.

Why? Because of the internet. He realises that the internet (particularly the web) reduces the barrier to entry for information and knowledge; that it exposes paucity of knowledge, and raises the bar for standards in professions where knowledge is a form of expertise.

He has seen his colleagues and peers, so-called experts, fail to hold the attention of crowds, as they bleat on about things we can all find out from the web. He is too passionate about his profession, his skills, his way of life to allow the internet to weaken him. He is too passionate about Pompeii, about its history, about his history, to roll over and give up.

So Mario, aged 65, a consummate professional, a passionate expert at what he does, is going back to school.

Because of the internet.

And you know what? He’s looking forward to it.

So I will be back in a few years’ time, to see Mario. To see what he has learnt. And how he keeps ahead of the internet.

In manufacturing we speak of a “China Price”. Maybe Mario’s tale suggests that for knowledge we should start speaking of an “internet price”.

In the meantime, here’s to Mario, and to all the Marios of this world. Passionate about what they do, choosing to embrace and extend the internet.

In praise of fleshy fruit and the power of the Web



Nongu, originally uploaded by Kamala L.

I love the web.

There I was, quietly watching the golf at Turnberry, occasionally switching over to the cricket at Lord’s, seated in my favourite armchair at home.

Felt a little peckish, so I went and got myself a handful of fresh lychees. Peeled each one carefully so as not to have the juices spurt everywhere. Extracted the seed carefully. Then savoured the taste of the fruit, one by one. A heavenly fruit.

Which led me on to thinking of other exotic fruit, fleshy and juicy and oh-so-tropical. I began to recall childhood memories of eating a very unusual fruit as a young boy, the only name I could remember was the Tamil word we used at home for it: Nongu.

Now I haven’t seen a nongu for forty years. Had no idea what its “Western” name was.

Today it doesn’t matter. Google the word. [So what if the word is in Tamil?] Inspect the results, find there’s one that leads straight to Flickr. Find what I’m looking for in Flickr, notice I now have an option to “blog this”. Take one minute to configure Flickr for posting straight to my WordPress blog. And there you have it.

The fruit of the palmyra tree, resplendent and peeled and ready to eat. Something I will definitely do next time I am in Madras during the right season.

So thank you Google, Flickr, WordPress, for the tools to make this possible.

Thank you Kamala L for posting the photo on Flickr and making it possible for me to write this post.

Thank you community at large for sharing stuff on the web, making it possible for people like me to participate and share.

Thinking about the web with respect to good and bad news

I was born into a journalistic family in the fifties. My father was a journalist, as was his father. The family business was journalism. Financial journalism. Their models of vertical integration included owning a printing press and shares in ad agencies and restaurants. Which meant that as a child, I was pretty used to hearing (and later taking part in) discussions about various aspects of journalism. And some of it intrigued me then, and continues to intrigue me now.

Take the phrase “Bad news sells”. I’ve personally never really liked the phrase. It was brought home to me as a 13 year old when I first heard 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night by Simon and Garfunkel.  Was it really true that people prefer bad news? Why should that be? It didn’t make sense to me.

The Deadhead free-thinking folk-rock loving tie-dyed longhaired tree-hugging Sixties child in me never let that phrase settle in me. I never wanted to believe that people preferred to hear bad news.  And you know something? I still don’t want to believe it.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Center For The People and The Press published something called The News Interest Index, 1986-2007: Two Decades of American News Preferences. The entire study is worth reading. From my perspective, three key points emerged:

  • One, people appeared most interested in news about disasters, then about money, then about conflict. Political and “tabloid” news followed, while “foreign” news elicited the least interest.
  • Two, that interest in “money” was growing, it was the fastest-growing topic.
  • Three, the topic of lowest interest was that related to “foreign” news.

Sean Park, an old colleague and close friend, used to start to explain many aspects of the more esoteric workings of investment banks with the phrase “fear and greed”. And the Pew report seemed to indicate that he was bang on the money as usual.

My perspective on the role of fear in news was at least partially informed by reading two books in recent years: The Science of Fear and Scared to Death ; George Lakoff’s anchors and frames were probably also a key influence, building on the seeds planted in my brain by erstwhile colleague James Montier.

It didn’t matter what I did, I still didn’t want to believe that people preferred bad news to good; I still wanted to believe that given the choice, people would prefer to hear good news.

Very recently I came across an intriguing paper published in 1996 by Chip Heath who was then at the University of Chicago and is now at Stanford. It raised the question “Do People Prefer to Pass Along Good or Bad News? Valence and Relevance of News as Predictors of Transmission Propensity”. I quote from the summary:

…..People typically prefer to pass along central rather than extreme information (i.e. news that is less surprising rather than more surprising). However, when confronted with extreme information, the results support a preference for congruence, that is, people prefer to pass along news that is congruent with the emotional valence of the domain in question. This means that in emotionally negative domains, contrary to some theoretical predictions, people are willing to pass along bad news even when it is exaggeratedly bad. At the same time, however, people transmit exaggeratedly good news in emotionally positive domains…..

I find this whole concept of domain-specific emotional valence fascinating. I start asking myself questions like “What is the emotional valence of the web?” “What about slashdot?” “And what about Twitter?”. For many years now, I’ve taken part in many discussions about the nature of the web, and, influenced heavily by friend and mentor Doc Searls, I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that the web is a place. A place made up of places, places that are zero distance apart.

The web has places of light and places of extreme darkness as well. I like spending time in places where people build each other up, say encouraging things to each other. I like spending time in places where people pass along tips and recommendations about people they like, books they like, music they like, food they like, restaurants they like. Positive things.

There’s an abundance of bad news out there already, in all shapes and colours and sizes. So why add to it?

I think that places like Twitter are good-news places, with a positive emotional valence. More accurately, the subset of Twitter that I inhabit, made up of the people I follow and the people who follow me, that subset is a place with a positive emotional valence. So we tend to pass on good news, not bad.

It doesn’t mean that bad news does not get passed by Twitter, or by my subset perspective. Of course there’s bad news in Twitter. But there’s also humour. And satire. And old-fashioned good-neighbourliness. And a whole lot of good news.

Twitter tells us about the miracle on the Hudson as quickly as it tells us about the crash over the Atlantic. Let’s keep it that way, let’s make sure we keep the web a place where good news is spread, not just bad. Where we help each other. Where we’re kind to each other. Where we build each other up. Maybe it’s because so many of the people I know are themselves children of the Sixties, maybe it’s why I get accused of being utopian and rose-spectacled. You know what? I don’t care.

There’s a whole world out there doing just the opposite. So let’s keep the web different.

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