This might not be entirely serious. Given the time of year, n'all. Doesn't change the fact that Google are pumping a ton of money into the concept though...
Inevitable that these would begin to appear in the mainstream. I predicted it a year ago, so I am the god of seeing things that are about to happen, again. It's getting quite dull, this omnipotent prescience thing.
This might not be entirely serious. Given the time of year, n'all. Doesn't change the fact that Google are pumping a ton of money into the concept though...
A couple of weeks ago I wrote some stuff about dipping my toes in the waters of the MOOC. It started this week, And gosh, has online learning moved on. I'm no stranger to it - I've done more than a few remote course through the Open University in an era when the internet had started to have some bearing on that long-established exemplar for the best of remote learning - but the experience now is a genuine substitute for, if not an improvement on traditional approaches. Video lectures you can attend at a time that suits you. Rich discussion forums. Mechanisms to connect you with other students to participate in group projects. Increasingly sophisticated approaches to examination that can provide proper, certificated qualifications. Above all else, a vast body of high quality teaching that's available for free, as academic bodies fall over themselves to compete for the attentions of students by putting large proportions of their offerings online, at diminishing marginal cost. If you still have elderly relatives claiming that there's no real point to the internet... well: This is the Point of the Internet.
What does it feel like? Well, in my chosen place of study - the attic - it feels a bit like this:
Yesterday I 'attended' a lecture at my desk at work, whilst eating a sandwich. And tonight, I attended one in the bath, on my iPhone. Am I sold on the concept? You wouldn't believe how much... I only wish I was younger, so I could look forward to more years of it.
I want to have been Bob Crisp. Show me a man who wouldn't say the same and I'll show you a man who doesn't really understand the point of being a man...
(Stolen, shamelessly, from The Guardian's 'The Spin' Newsletter. Sign up for it here. You don't have to like cricket, but it helps
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY
"Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true." That fine line is the first in William Goldman's Oscar-winning script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Screenwriters enjoy a little more licence than journalists, but sometimes we play a little fast and loose too. "My concern with accuracy," as Hunter S Thompson put it when someone pointed out to him that Richard Nixon didn't actually sell used cars with cracked blocks, "is on a higher level than nickels and dimes". The spirit of the story can be as important as the facts of the matter. It hasn't been possible to check every detail in this article. But, for what it is worth, most of this is true too, one way or another.
Let's start with the certainties. We can be sure of these few things, because they were set down in the Wisden Almanack: Bob Crisp played nine Tests for South Africa, the first of them in the summer of 1935, and the last of them in the spring of 1939, 77 years ago last week.
Crisp was a fast bowler, who had the knack of making the ball bounce steeply and, when the weather suited, swing both ways. His 20 Test match wickets cost 37 runs each. The best of them were the five for 99 he took against England at Old Trafford, including Wally Hammond, clean bowled when well-set on 29. Admirable but unremarkable figures those. A few more: Crisp took 276 first class wickets at under 20 runs each, twice took four wickets in four balls, and once took nine for 64 for Western Province against Natal. Impressive as those numbers are, they still seem scant justification for the description of Crisp Wisden gives in his obituary: "One of the most extraordinary men ever to play Test cricket." But then, as the big yellow book puts it, "statistics are absurd for such a man."
Wisden is right, the traditional measures aren't much use. A few other numbers, the kind even Wisden's statisticians don't tally, may help make his case. The first would be two, which was the number of times Crisp climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The next would be three, which is both the number of books he wrote, and the number of occasions on which he was busted down in rank and then re-promoted while he was serving in the British Army. Then there are six, which is the total number of tanks he had shot out or blown up underneath him while serving in North Africa, and 29 , which is the number of days in which all those tanks were lost; 24 is the number of years he lived after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. And finally, most appropriately for a cricketer, comes 100, which is, well …
In 1992 Crisp, then 81, was in Australia to watch the 1992 World Cup. One of his two sons, Jonathan, had flown him there as a treat. At the MCG, Jonathan bumped into the old England wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans, who he knew through Evans's work as a PR for Ladbrokes. "Godfrey said to me, 'Your father is here? Oh God, I've got to meet him, he's my hero," Jonathan Crisp says. "I said 'Come off it Godfrey, you were a proper cricketer, how can he be your hero?'" Evans replied that Bob Crisp was the first man make a 100 on tour. "I said 'What? How can he be? Plenty of people have made 100s.' And Godfrey said, "No, no, not runs, women, 100 women."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jonathan Crisp and his brother were estranged from their father for a long time. Bob, too footloose for family life, abandoned them when they were still young.
In the mid-1950s Bob's wife, the boys' mother, won on the football pools. It was timely; Bob had just resigned in a fit of pique from his job on the Daily Express, who had told him he couldn't run a scurrilous story about corruption in greyhound racing. Bob took her winnings and spent them all on a mink farm in Suffolk. "He did that, and did it so badly that my mother had to take it over and turn it into a successful business," Jonathan says. "He ran off and got a job as a leader writer for the East Anglian Daily Times, a job which allowed him to live in the style he was accustomed to."
Later, when Bob was 56, he ran further still, all the way to Greece. "He had some friends there who he could live with." Jonathan says. "Or rather, live off." When Jonathan found his father again, years later, Bob was living alone in a goat hut on the Mani peninsula. He had no running water, and no lavatory. But he did have a cravat, and a clipping from a biography of Field Marshal Alexander which read "the greatest Hun-killer I ever knew was Major Bob Crisp". The page had been laminated, and Bob Crisp took great glee in handing it over to any Germans he met in the village. "He thought that sort of thing was funny."
When Jonathan flew to Greece to meet his father, he found him at the head of table in Lela's Taverna. "There were 10 women around him. And it was clear he was bedding all of them. He was 70 at the time." Jonathan says that the lamentations of the local women became a familiar refrain: "You must help me, I am in love with your father." Some of them were in their mid-20s. Some of them were in their mid-50s. It didn't make any difference. Bob wasn't the settling sort.
Lela's was made famous by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who lived in that part of Greece at the same time. The two men, both writers and raconteurs, were friends and rivals. It would have given Crisp enormous satisfaction to read this story by Guardian journalist Kevin Rushby . When Rushby arrived in the village of Kardamyli last year, the locals had little recollection of Leigh Fermor (or, indeed, of another famous travel writer who had passed through, Bruce Chatwin), but could not stop talking about Bob. "What about Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor? You must know about him." asked Rushby. "The old man shook his head. 'No, I don't think so. There was a writer called Robert. Now he was famous – cured himself of cancer by walking around Crete. He was very famous.' [He] leaned back and shouted in Greek to his wife in the kitchen. She came through, cloth in hand. 'Robert Crisp,' she said, smiling. 'What a wonderful man! So handsome!'"
Jonathan was too close to his mother to be that blind to his father's faults, and too appreciative of his father to let those faults obscure his feats. "He was a remarkable and extraordinary man," he says. "An absolute charmer. And an absolute $hit." The drinking, womanising, and gambling, Jonathan points out, "can seem heroic or can seem awful. It depends which side of the coin you were on."
Not everyone had such a balanced view. As George Macdonald Fraser puts it in Flashman: "In England you can't be a hero and bad. There's practically a law against it." One of Jonathan's most vivid early memories is sitting down with a copy of the Eagle comic, only to open it up and find there was a story about his father in it, an illustrated account of his exploits in the war. "It was very odd, but he was that kind of man." He and his brother, who are working on a book about their father's life, are still trying to unravel the strands of his life, to sort, where they can, fact from fiction.
They think it is true, for instance, that just before Bob Crisp was called up for the South African team for the first time, for the tour to England, he climbed Kilimanjaro. The story goes just as he was coming down through foothills, he bumped into a friend of his and said: "It's fantastic up there, have you ever been up?" He hadn't. So Crisp turned right around and they climbed it again, together. Just below the summit, the friend fell and broke his leg, so Crisp picked him up, carried him up to the top, and then carried him all the way down again.
They know it isn't true that, as the elderly Greek man reckoned, Crisp cured his cancer by walking around Crete. He was diagnosed when he was 60, and told it was terminal. "He had always wanted to walk around Crete with a donkey, so when he was told how ill he was he thought 'fcuk it' and set off," Jonathan says. Bob paid his way by selling the story to the Sunday Express. "When he came back he decided to row a boat around Corfu. But the boat sank."
What cured Crisp's cancer, it seems, was an experimental drug, an early form of chemotherapy, which he was given by the Greek doctors. He was told to apply it to his body, but instead he drank it. "It was so disgusting that he mixed it with a bottle of retsina and drank that instead." There was a time, shortly after, when he was flown to England and the USA by various consultant oncologists, who were trying to find out whether he had found some miracle cure in the combination of this unknown chemical and rotgut alcohol.
That was his second death. The first was 30 years earlier. That was in the Libyan desert, the day after he discovered, while listening to the BBC's 9 o'clock news on his tank's wireless set, that he was to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for conspicuous gallantry. Shell shrapnel hit his head. As he lay crumpled at the foot of his turret, Crisp felt "beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was going to die. The darkness I was sinking in to was the darkness of the grave. Strangest of all, I didn't care a damn. As I went out into eternal darkness the last thought I had was … death is easy." He survived, thanks only, he was told by the gynaecologist who performed emergency surgery on him, "to the good thick bit of skull" that the metal hit.
So far as anyone can be, Bob Crisp was an honest memoirist. As his son says "like most biographers, while they appear to be critical of themselves they very rarely appear in a light that is totally unflattering". He does write with startling honesty about his mistaken assault on an English tank. He accidentally killed its gunner, "a young lad, red hair, fair skin, freckled face. As they pulled him out, the head rolled side-ways and two, wide-open, empty eyes looked straight into mine. In that moment I touched the rock-bottom of experience." The war moved so fast, though, that he scarcely had time to dwell on what he had done. More cheerfully, Crisp also admits that he once caught crabs after pinching another officer's pair of silk pyjamas to sleep in (and foolishly tried to cure himself by dousing his genitals in high-octane petrol).
The early months of Crisp's war were spent carousing in Alexandria, singing and dancing for his dinner (typically escalope Viennoise and a bottle of white wine) in the local cabaret clubs. He seduced a local showgirl, Vera, who he had to leave behind when he was sent to Greece. He writes so tenderly of their relationship that he almost persuades the reader he really was in love. Until he describes their final kiss: "I knew that I would always think of that last, innocent contact – and that if I ever missed her it would help me to remember how her breath always smelled, just a little bit, of garlic."
Greece was little more than a rout, one long retreat from the border with Yugoslavia back to the bottom tip of the country. Along the way Crisp had three tanks blown up underneath him, hijacked a New Zealand officers' Mess lorry, and shot down a low-flying German Heinkel bomber with a burst from his machine gun while it was in the middle of a strafing run. The beating he took seemed to fuel his thirst for action. He found it at the battle to lift the German siege of Tobruk, where he fought continuously for 14 days, on an average of 90 minutes sleep a night. He won his DSO at Sidi Rezegh , where he led his tank in a single-handed charge across an airfield that temporarily checked an advance of 70 German Panzers.
Crisp later told the cricket writer David Frith that his courage was a "reaction to the shame he felt at being afraid". But his modesty concealed a darker truth, as he once confessed to Jonathan. To his shame, Crisp admitted to his son that he actually "loved the war. He enjoyed it. He thought it was fantastic".
MacDonald Fraser, who also served in North Africa, writes brilliantly about men like Bob Crisp. They epitomise, Fraser says, "this myth called bravery, which is half panic, half lunacy". After the attack on Sidi Rezegh, Crisp seemed to catch a fever for fighting. The next day, stranded on foot, he commandeered a signals tank whose crew had "never even fired their gun before", let alone been in battle. Crisp hauled their officer out of his turret, and with a cry of "Driver advance! Gunner, get that bloody cannon loaded!" led them in a surprise attack on a group of German anti-tank guns. Afterwards the driver was so shell-shocked by this startling turn of events that he started running around in small circles with a wild look on his face. The poor chap hadn't the faintest idea where he was or what he was doing." Crisp cured him with a "tremendous kick up the backside".
Jonathan Crisp says he has it on "very good authority from a lot of different people" that his father was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but Field Marshal Montgomery refused to allow it because Crisp was so ill-disciplined. He was demoted three times. But then he was also mentioned in despatches four times. Crisp was awarded the Military Cross instead. He was presented with it by King George VI, who asked him if his cricket career would be affected by the wound. "No sire," Crisp replied. "I was only hit in the head."
In fact Crisp was too injured to play cricket again. After the war he went back into journalism, and, almost a footnote in his life this, founded Drum, the radical South African magazine for the township communities. He fell out with his fellow editors there. "Like a lot of rogues," Jonathan says. "He was very charming and entertaining until things started to go wrong." So he came back to Britain to work on Fleet Street, and fell back in to his old friendships with two fellow rakes, Denis Compton and Keith Miller.
Having survived the war, and cancer, Bob Crisp finally died in his sleep, at home, in 1994. When Jonathan found his father's body in the morning, there was a copy of the Sporting Life in his lap. The only thing Bob Crisp left in the world was a £20 bet on the favourite in that year's Grand National. "It lost," says Jonathan. "Of course."
There is a line in Big Fish, Tim Burton's movie about how we can never really know the lives of our parents, which goes: "In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate the fact from the fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn't always make sense and most of it never happened … but that's what kind of story this is." Well, Jonathan Crisp knows that most of his father's story really did happen. And if there are a few exaggerations and fabrications along the way, well, the story is truer for their inclusion. "One of the most extraordinary men ever to play Test cricket," says Wisden. If there's someone out there who tops him, I'd like to hear their tale.
Every now and then, I wibble on about technology: it's what I've done for a living for the last 20 years in some way or other and I can get excited about it in a fashion that many would find disturbing, in a 'Stop fiddling around in your trouser pockets!' kind of way. In recent years, most of the excitement has come from some edge opportunity becoming a reality, generally as a result of some company turning up on the scene - or repositioning its offerings - in a way that has the potential to radically redefine the way we live or work. Think Apple, Google, Dropbox, Evernote... all of which I've penned something hyperbolic about in the past. But think also the mass of niche players, the developers of narrow cloud applications and tablet apps who come and go and just occasionally turn into a new behemoth - a Spotify or Betfair or Skype.
But don't think Microsoft. If there's been a constant presence in the background of my career in and around IT it's been Microsoft. The Microsoft who used to own the Desktop in every house and every company. The Microsoft who dominated the productivity - Office - software market. The Microsoft who could set pretty much whatever price they wanted for what they did because no-one else could credibly challenge it. Comfortable, turgid old Microsoft who were caught napping when Apple stole the music market. And then the tablet market that Microsoft had failed to get right. The Smartphone market that MS had a real headstart on... but fell asleep over at just the wrong moment. Microsoft who watched Google develop services in the cloud - GMail, Google Docs, Picasa, Search... and made miserable copycat attempts at the same, too little, too late. Microsoft who have been running to catch up with the whole cloud thing for the last 5 years, whilst Amazon, Dropbox, Box, Google leached our data into the sky and began to persuade the companies that we work for that the whole data - and services and infrastructure - in the sky thing might be a bit of a corporate imperative. Microsoft who looked on aghast as the world decided that the desktop computer wasn't the be-all and end-all of existence, the mobile device was the new Pope and blooming heck we have nothing to offer in that market unless we embark on a big and expensive catch-up exercise which everyone will sneer at because we are already history. Sad old Microsoft who cling onto their office apps, attempt to challenge the Unified Comms market (with increasing success, to be fair - Cisco and Avaya are running scared), fret about the absence of a social and collaborative offering in an 'I wish I had more friends' way and look less visionary than me, sitting in my kitchen, banging out musings on this crappy Dell laptop. Poor old Microsoft, led by their resident crazed loony. Microsoft, once kings of all they surveyed, now best recognised in the average household as the maker of a fine videogames console. They're dead in the water.
Except... I think they may not be. Because, the thing is... 99% of people who read this won't have a clue about what I'm talking about. The incremental leaps and occasional bound in the sectors that Gartner like to call The Nexus of Forces are of no interest to most people. They want computing in their houses that makes life easy. They want it on all the devices they carry about, want it secure and safe and backed up and functional. Above all, they don't want to have to think about it. They certainly don't need to follow the incremental developments in cloud storage and cloud applications and voice and video and blah blah blah. The minutiae of technology are for eggheads and gadget pervs. People like me. (Obviously, mostly the former).
So, what has Microsoft done? They've caught up with a very big chunk of all this, all at once. A tablet device that runs a desktop OS as well as a tablet OS (Jury out on that until the hardware is proven, but it's very appealing). A desktop OS that can do touch as well - and I like it enough to have installed it across my house, for no better reason than that it works a bit better than the last one as a desktop OS and seemed a natural thing to do if I wanted to really get to grips with what was coming next. But... critically... a new version of their Office suite that rethinks the offering completely. Everyone will know the old Office apps - because everyone uses them at work - that cost a fortune if you actually dared to consider having them at home, legally. No more.
Office 365 is now a subscription offering. Less than £80 a year and you can put the very latest - and generally rather beautiful - version on five devices in your household. Including Access, OneNote and Publisher. It comes with 20GB of Skydrive cloud storage a la Dropbox. Edit your documents in the cloud from any machine - you can download the appropriate office app temporarily while you work. An hour of free phone calls every month, to anywhere, with Skype (which MS bought a year ago). Apps with 20 years of development behind them that make Google's offerings look puny. I could write reams about why this is important, but the bottom-line is clear. For someone like me, with a house full of saucepans and computers, it's a compelling proposition. I'll keep some stuff on the margins - GMail and Hangouts in particular - but I am signing up and moving my house back into Microsoft's world for the time being. The integration with the base OS, the functionality, the simplicity of the proposition - it's just too compelling. What's really significant about this is that it doesn't require anyone to understand the small details, the incremental changes, the challenges of integrating your personal life across a range of services. This is it, out of the box, courtesy stodgy old Microsoft. Sure, it's not perfect - the absence of iOS 365 apps is a big hole, the collaboration capability is a bit limited, the mail offering is not going to make me reject GMail... but it's big enough, coherent enough, slick enough to reposition Microsoft's slice of the consumer and enterprise market in a fundamental way.
Why do I think this is interesting enough to write about? Well, because I think it might just kick against the normal course of a technology company's life cycle: Big or small, long-lived or flash in the pan, technology companies generally rise... and then fall. An Apple occasionally does the phoenix thing, but it's not common. Up... then down is the natural order. What Microsoft are currently doing might well be the start of a scrabble out of the pit of technology has-beens. And it may well touch us all.
You can go try out the new office for free, for a month. It's absolutely worth a look.