Anything you can do I can do better . . . performance management and monitoring

Society – in the UK at least – seems obsessed these days with performance. And I’m not referring to the exploits of our athletes in Team GB during London 2012.

No, what I’m concerned about is the focus we seem to have on performance targets and monitoring. Now don’t get me wrong. I do agree that there has to be accountability for many of the things in which society invests. But there are some areas where performance monitoring and appraisal have been taken a little too far in my opinion. I have to be a little circumspect, I guess, since my elder daughter Hannah is a PhD psychologist specializing in industrial and organizational psychology and particularly in issues relating to performance.

In the public eye
Before the Olympics Games finally got under way, there was great concern that the company that had been contracted to provide security cover had not been able to recruit the necessary number of staff or get those that had been trained in time. Thankfully, all went quiet and appears to have gone smoothly as the Games commenced.

But the company in question, G4S, had contracted to provide all these people, yet only came clean a couple of weeks before the Games were due to open that they could not fulfil the terms of the contract. Now it’s not my role here to criticize how G4S managed its contract. What I do find hard to understand is how its failure to deliver was not picked up until so close to the Games. I would have expected the contract to have some very carefully defined targets and a set of milestones that had to be achieved by certain dates. These would have permitted adequate monitoring of contract progress. Maybe these were in place, but no-one bothered to monitor what was going on.

Now we have the furore about GCSE English exam results, and the moving of grade boundaries. Not only will this change in marking practice affect individual students, lower grades affect the targets which schools are expected to achieve in terms of passes at certain grades among students taking exams if the funding from the government is not to be adversely affected. Again, targets, targets, targets.

My own experiences with performance setting and monitoring have been concerned with two aspects. First, as with most employees these days I guess, I’ve had to undergo an annual performance appraisal. And second, as Director for Program Planning and Communications at IRRI between 2001 and 2010 I had responsibility for developing the institute’s Medium Term Plan and helping colleagues to define/refine their annual research targets, as well as respond to the increasingly idiotic and meaningless questions raised by the small-minded accountant hired by the CGIAR Secretariat in Washington, DC who hadn’t the first clue about scientific research (either basic, applied or for development) and was, in reality, the proverbial ‘bean counter’.

Performance appraisal
It was the late 1980s, and I was working at the University of Birmingham, as lecturer in plant biology. The Thatcher government had made any salary increase for academic staff contingent on the introduction of a performance appraisal system – something that was very new in academic circles. We had training courses – both for those supervising staff and for those being appraised. I have to admit I was dead set against this new fangled approach. It seemed to me that if you were found not to be performing as expected there were measures in place to help you do better. If, on the other hand, everything was going well, you might get a pat on the back, and that seemed about it.

I think I surprised myself when, after the first round of performance appraisal, I became a convert. I had found the whole exercise worthwhile and, following a complete reorganization in the School of Biological Sciences into four research groups (I was in the Plant Genetics group), had a better understanding of my niche in the School – and that it was appreciated by my head of group. It was also very useful to be able to have a frank and unconstrained discussion, one-on-one, with my head of group, Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey. From this experience, I became convinced that performance appraisal should be more about personal development rather than a means primarily to set remuneration policy and merit increases, although it surely plays a part.

So I was rather shocked when I moved to IRRI in 1991 to find a system of forced ranking, where local staff expected to be rated ‘excellent’ just for doing their job, simply because salary increases were tied to the outcome of the appraisal cycle. In fact during the 19 years I was at IRRI, I think I must have been through more than half a dozen different appraisal systems – and to my mind, none of them was particularly satisfactory. I was able to have some aspects of the development criteria I’d experienced at Birmingham brought into the IRRI system, however, and I think they were appreciated by staff at all levels.

But getting staff performance appraisal just right is a tricky issue, and I do not count myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I think I can recognise a system that is just not delivering – either for the individual staff members or the organization.

Performance targets and monitoring
The days when a researcher could follow his or her scientific curiosity are long gone. Just ask anyone who has had to write a research proposal – for basic research, applied research, or research for development, and the problem of crystal ball gazing emerges once again. Scientists are often asked, as one of the criteria for evaluation, what the impact of their research is likely to be, 10, 20 or 50 years down the road. This is an impossible question for many.

But in the fields of research that I have been associated with for several decades, the success of any grant submission is the ability to clearly demonstrate what the outcomes and impact are expected to be, and to plot a pathway (through milestones) to achieving those. I don’t have much of a problem with that; after all this type of research is not done for its own sake, but has the ultimate aim of improving people’s livelihoods. But while a targets and monitoring scheme can be a framework to assess the benefit-cost of research investment, it had, in my opinion, become a millstone around the collective necks of the international agricultural research community, imposed from above by a group of donors whose staff (well some of them at least who were calling the shots) had little understanding of the nature, complexities and constraints of carrying out research for development, and often in rather challenging conditions.

Among the beefs I had with that accountant in DC were first, the ambiguity of the monitoring metrics – which allowed interpretation and therefore gaming of the system among research centers in the system (after all the ranking that performance monitoring brought about had a direct impact on the next year’s funding), and second, the complete lack of understanding that even though a research project had not met its targets to the letter,  there could have been nevertheless significant impact on the ground. It was the numbers that mattered. And I’m afraid I did, on more than one occasion, let my frustration with system get the better of me, and interact with the Secretariat folks in less than my usual courteous way.

I worry that research for development is increasingly being devised and carried out to a formula, and the performance targets and monitoring are only exacerbating the problem. As I said from the outset, I have no issues with performance assessment per se. But when these exercises take away significant valuable time from active researchers in order to feed into a bureaucratic system (for certain months of the year I was spending over 50% of my time responding to external performance monitoring and auditing requests and having to ask researchers to take time away from their work to meet the deadlines which were imposed on us) then the balance is wrong.

Since retiring I’ve fortunately not had to deal with these issues any more – and it was the increased bureaucracy of international agricultural research that finally decided me to retire. I’m sure this won’t be the end of it. The CGIAR has gone through a major reform and reorganization program, and I’m sure it will have to devise new (better, probably not less complicated?) performance monitoring schemes in order to justify the shape, feel, direction, and expense of spending several years navel gazing to move its agricultural research agenda forward.

I’ve never thought of myself as a cynic. Unfortunately in the last 18 months before I retired I felt myself developing a cynical outlook, and I didn’t like what I saw. Time to get out. I’m happier now.

Postscript (20 March 2014)
Just after the beginning of 2014 I received an email from an old friend, Sirkka Immonen, who works for the CGIAR Independent Evaluation Arrangement, based in Rome. Sirkka and a colleague had made an analysis of the CGIAR’s performance management system, which they had published in the journal Evaluation [1]. One of their compelling conclusions is ‘ . . . that the CGIAR’s PM [Performance Measurement] experiment failed against all the intended purposes. There were inherent difficulties in developing a set of annual indicators with high validity in reflecting the kind of performance that research institutions are expected to demonstrate, on outputs, outcomes and impacts. The system therefore was dominated by simpler observations related to quantitative records and institutional issues with unclear connections to performance of research organizations.’ The whole article is certainly worth a read. And after I had read it myself, I did feel somewhat vindicated for the stance that I had taken and the many concerns that I had raised while trying to implement what I then considered a flawed system in the research context.

[1] Immonen, S and LL Cooksy (2014). Using performance measurement to assess research: Lessons learned from the international agricultural research centres. Evaluation 20 (1), 96-114.

TV habits . . .

I guess I watch a little too much TV, perhaps. Of one thing I am sure, however. I’m a news junkie, and the availability of a 24 hour news channel on the BBC is good news as far as I’m concerned. So if I miss the scheduled main bulletins at 1 pm and 6 pm, I can always catch up at any time in between.

Funnily enough, I quite like tuning into the BBC Parliament channel to see what our representatives are up to – or not, as the case may be. It’s incredible how empty the Chamber is sometimes. Must be soulless being a Member of Parliament on some days when you decide to make speech on a topic close to your heart and only a handful of colleagues (from all sides of the House) turn up to listen. And there are 650 MPs elected to parliament.

I do like adaptations of the classics – such as Jane Austen and Dickens, and there have been some wonderful series over the years. While we lived abroad we were able to catch up through DVD purchases. So we look forward each year to the autumn schedules and wonder what new adaptations will be presented for our delectation.

And I particularly enjoy history programs very much. We’ve just watched an excellent three-part series on The Churchills by David Starkey (a rather controversial historian), in which he ‘showed’ how Winston Churchill was destined to become a great wartime Prime Minister after having researched and published during the 1930s a magnum opus biography of his ancestor, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, one of the greatest generals in the first decade of the 18th century, under Queen Anne.

Other historians that have presented interesting series recently are Amanda Vickery on the Georgians, Cambridge classics scholar Mary Beard on the Romans, and Bettany Hughes, most recently presenting a 3-part series Divine Women and co-presenting Britain’s Secret Treasures (with, I have to say, increasing focus on her ample Rubensesque, Nigella Lawson-like bosom, all plunging necklines and profile shots); Lucy Worsley (Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces) rarely fails to please in the various series she has presented. Michael Wood has also made some good series, particularly that about Trojan War (as long ago as 1985 – how time flies).

But there are three BBC programs, all of which have enjoyed multiple series, that I’ve become somewhat ‘addicted’ to, and I’m not quite sure why.

Bargain Hunt
Presented by Chartered Auctioneer and Chartered Surveyor Tim Wonnacott, the program format is surprisingly simple.

Two teams, the Reds and the Blues (of two contestants each) are given £300 each (it was £600 in the early series) – and the support of an expert – to find three bargains at an antiques fair or similar within one hour, which will then be sold at auction (filmed at a later date at an auction house somewhere in the UK). The balance of what they pay for their items is given to the expert (often auctioneers themselves) to spend on a bonus buy. The winners are the team that makes the most profit at auction – whether or not they choose to use the bonus buy – or make the least loss. Any profit is kept by the contestants. A team that makes a profit on all three of their items gets the award of the Golden Gavel – actually a pin button with the BH logo.

What I really like is the last 20 minutes or so of each program when the various purchases are assessed by the auctioneer who is going to sell them. Did they really buy a bargain or a load of junk? It’s impressive the knowledge these auctioneers and the other experts have – but they don’t always come up trumps. It just depends on the ‘buzz’ at the auction on a particular day and, it seems, that some items do better in one part of the country than another (the program is filmed in different auction rooms all over the country). And it’s really interesting to watch the skill of the different auctioneers, and how they move items that don’t look to have any chance of making a profit whatsoever.

Dragons’ Den
This is presented in the UK version by broadcaster Evan Davies (one of the regular anchors of the BBC Radio 4 Today program each morning). Apparently Dragons’ Den began life in Japan, but now there are versions in a number of countries. I’ve seen the Irish and Canadian versions on the TV over here.

Budding entrepreneurs seeking investment in their company or an idea make a pitch to five venture capitalists who have made it, and who are (apparently) prepared to invest their own money in return for an equity stake. The pitch can only last about three minutes, during which time they have to convince the investors about the potential of their idea/product/invention.

And while a few are successful, it never ceases to amaze me how many budding entrepreneurs arrive in the Den ill-prepared. Obviously they are nervous, and some just blow it, and go to pieces. Quite a number do not have the necessary financial details and projections at their fingertips, nor a viable business plan. But there are two ‘mistakes’ that crop up time and again.

The first relates to intellectual property on inventions. The investors are unlikely to invest (maybe up to £200,000) in an invention that has not been protected. The award of a valid patent is sure to attract their attention. And the other mistake is to value their companies or product too high, by asking for an investment and yet unwilling to offer a sufficiently high equity stake. So asking for £100,000 and offering only 10% equity (thus valuing the company or product at £1 million) is sure to end up in some hardball negotiation, and the Dragons usually ask for a much higher stake, even as high as 49%.

But there have been some impressive investments. I have to say however that watching some entrepreneurs squirm under the intense (and sometimes quite hostile) grilling from the Dragons does make for compulsive TV.

Now this is a different kettle of fish – much more light-hearted.

With resident quizmaster, polymath Stephen Fry and resident panelist, comedian and actor Alan Davies (who is joined each program by three other panelists) the show aims to throw some light on things that just might be Quite Interesting – thus QI. It was created by John Lloyd who wrote/produced/created a whole load of other shows on British TV, including Spitting Image and Blackadder, among others.

The panelists are most often other comedians (although Professor Brian Cox was a guest on a recent episode), who are asked about different topics; each show seems to have a particular theme. They are lulled into traps to provide an ‘obvious’ but quite often incorrect answer. Which then allows for much witty banter to-and-fro among the panelists.

The scoring system is a mystery, with Alan Davies most often coming last, with multiple minus points. In recent series the ‘nobody knows’ option has been introduced. In each program there is one question for which nobody knows the answer. Extra points are awarded for correctly identifying this question.

But it’s not about the points – it’s all about the free exchange of wit among Fry and his guests. Forty-five minutes or so of jovial entertainment.

Indiana Me . . . temples in the jungle

Over my career, I was very fortunate to be able to combine business trips with short visits to some of the world’s iconic heritage sites, or take time out for a quick vacation in the region without having to fly half way round the world.

When we lived in Peru, I visited Machu Picchu a couple of times; almost anywhere you travel in Peru you are immersed in archaeology. In Central America we had the opportunity to visit the pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala (and I hope to post photos from here once I have digitized the slides), and also those at Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. But one of the most impressive sites must surely be the huge temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And we had the chance to visit there in December 2000.

On flights from Bangkok to Manila I have often overflown Angkor Wat, and even from 30,000 feet its extent looks truly impressive (even if there is also evidence over the whole countryside of the intense bombing that Cambodia suffered over several decades of war).

Angkor Wat is located in northwest Cambodia, near the town of Siem Reap, and near the Tonlé Sap, a huge seasonally flooded lake that acts as an overflow for the Mekong River during its flooding.

While we refer to Angkor Wat as a ‘site’, there are in fact many temples and other complexes covering a large area, apparently about 200 square kilometers. The beauty of the stone carvings, the iconic stone faces pointing in four directions, and the wonder of the forest reclaiming the various temples all add to the mystery of Angkor.

I’m not going to attempt to describe in detail what Angkor Wat has to offer, but a visit there has to last more than just one day. We stayed there for three nights, and although we were able to many of the sites and temples, there are plenty more mysteries to uncover, hidden by the jungle that has reclaimed its dominance over the area.

Some of the temple complexes, like the Angkor Wat site itself and Bayon are large with many beautiful buildings to explore, others are much smaller, comprising just a couple of buildings or so. Just click on these photos to open web albums (scanned images rather than original digital photos).

Angkor Wat


When we visited, it was possible to move freely around all the sites, look inside the temples, climb the towers – and really explore. While it was quite busy in some sites, we did manage to get away from the bulk of the tourists. But the increasing number of visitors to Angkor Wat is now giving rise to concerns, as this recent story on the BBC website discusses.

Settlements at Angkor Wat stretch back thousands of years, but much of what we see today was constructed from about the 11-12th centuries onwards, reaching its peak a couple of centuries later. I’ve read estimates of more than 1 million people were involved in building the temples. And for an ex-rice scientist like myself, that begs the question about the extent and productivity of rice agriculture that was required to keep this huge population fed.

In addition to the Angkor Wat and Bayon sites, these are the other sites you can ‘visit’:

Let me finish with a quote from the Introduction in Dawn Rooney’s guidebook to Angkor Wat [1]: The temples startle with their splendour and perfection, but beyond the emotions they evoke lie complex microcosms of a universe steeped in cosmology. While a thorough understanding may be out of reach for many, the monuments’ profound beauty touches everyone . . . 


[1] Rooney, D (1997). Angkor – an Introduction to the Temples. Passport Books, Lincolnwood (Chicago), Illinois 60646-1975.
ISBN: 0-8442-4766-9

A state of decline . . . repair, not restore

A few days ago, with a fair to promising weather forecast (it actually turned out much brighter and warmer than expected) we made another of our National Trust visits – this time to Calke Abbey, near the village of Ticknall which lies just to the southeast of Derby (of Rolls Royce aeroengines fame), in the English Midlands.

Calke Abbey (incidentally there was never an abbey there, although there had been an Augustinian priory in the vicinity from the 13th century) is a country house, rebuilt between 1701 and 1704 – amid several hundred acres of farm and park land (including a deer park) – by Sir John Harpur, the 4th baronet. His impressive memorial was built in St Giles Church on the Calke Abbey estate.

The original estate was purchased by the 1st baronet in 1622, and remained in the Harpur family until 1985. Sir John Harpur married a daughter of Lord Crewe, and at some date thereafter the family name was changed to Crewe, and then Harpur Crewe. The last baronet died in the early 20s, and the estate passed to a grandson, Charles Jenney – who changed his name to Harpur Crewe. When he died in 1981, the estate was faced with crippling death duties, and like so many ‘stately homes’ it began to deteriorate because the family could no longer afford its upkeep. In 1985 ownership passed to the National Trust. And what a treasure trove the Trust encountered!

It seems the Harpur Crewes were mildly eccentric, didn’t have electricity installed in the house until 1962, and almost never threw anything away – they were great hoarders. So when the National Trust came to inventory the house and its contents, they found a property that consisted entirely of its original contents. Whole rooms, such as the dining room, were furnished just as they had been originally completed in the 18th century.

Normally the National Trust acquires various items and displays them in its different properties according to the period or aspect they want to emphasise. But not so with Calke Abbey – nothing has been brought in. Although extensive roof repairs had to be carried out, there has been remarkably little water damage in the house. Even when the house was occupied, different wings were abandoned after the Second World War, and essentially left to their own devices and deteriorate (these had the feel perhaps of Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations by Victorian author and one of the world’s greatest novelists, Charles Dickens).

In the case of Calke Abbey, the National Trust took the decision to repair the fabric of the building (to reduce further deterioration) but not to renovate. So it’s quite fascinating to move through the house and see those parts which continued to be occupied, and those which had been shut up for decades.

In the entrance hall and lobby there is a number of stuffed heads of longhorn cattle that were once farmed on the estate. In fact, the house is full of stuffed heads of deer – they are everywhere – and throughout the house there are dozens of glass cases of stuffed birds, mainly of British origin, but also fine examples from around the world. It’s a taxidermist’s paradise.

In the caricature room the walls are covered with 18th century cartoons relating to politics and society at that time.

The main staircase is very impressive, and is made from oak and yew.

But it’s in the dining room, the breakfast room, and the saloon that the glory of Calke Abbey comes to the fore. The original plasterwork is still intact and speaks volumes for the quality of the craftsmanship of the 18th century.

The bedroom of Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe remains apparently much as it was when he abandoned it for another when he was married in 1876.

On the National Trust website, it’s possible to take a virtual tour of Calke Abbey, which certainly gives you a feel for the house and its contents. I have also posted a web album where you can see many more photos from inside the house and the park and gardens.

A short distance from the house stands St Giles Church, and there is a beautiful stained glass window above the altar that was installed by Sir George Crewe who died in 1844.

There is a formal garden, and a walled kitchen garden (that was formally much larger) in addition to the farm and parkland. And two very interesting features are the tunnels that connect the gardens with the house, and one from the wine cellars in the house to the brew house, alongside the stable yard. This tunnel weaves for about 100 m, and allowed domestic staff to pass from the house to the brew house without being seen!

Calke Abbey was certainly more than I had expected, and is a fascinating insight to 18th and 19th century living.

Just a late summer morning walk . . .

After a couple of weeks of mostly excellent weather while the London 2012 Olympics were taking place, it has been quite iffy since then, and we’ve even had some torrential downpours from slow-moving storms. We’re back to the Jet Stream hovering just south of the country allowing North Atlantic weather systems to blow in and give us quite unseasonable weather.

But today has been different. Although it’s been breezy at times, we’ve had a bright sunny morning, and quite warm, thanks to a weak ridge of high pressure shown in the map above.

Not having had chance to get out and about for my (almost) daily walk recently, I relished the opportunity today of walking along the local Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Whatever the weather, it’s a great walk – from just a mile or so, to upwards of a dozen or more, to and from where we often park the car. In both directions (north and south) one eventually comes to tunnels, and the towpath then winds it way up and over to join the canal on the other end of the tunnels.

Today, Steph and I just made a short walk of about three miles, from Whitford Bridge (just near the Queen’s Head pub), to one of the local access roads, Upper Gambolds Lane.

Just after we started our walk we saw four buzzards flying over head (photo courtesy of Barry Boswell), seeking the thermals and wheeling ever upwards until we could hardly make them out. But even though they were hard to see we could hear them mewling to each other. (Just a few days ago I’d seen four other buzzards quite close to the centre of Bromsgrove, calling to each other, and displaying the tumbling flight which is one of their characteristics.)

At first we were rather surprised that there were so few other folks out walking, and the canal traffic itself was also quiet even though it’s a Bank Holiday weekend here in the UK. However, we finally came across about five narrowboats that were following each other up the Tardebigge flight of 30 locks, one after the other.

On a walk like today it gives me chance to hone some of my digital photographic skills. I’m finally getting to grips with my Nikon DSLR. Here are just a few of the photos I took this morning.

Even though the flowers are dying off there’s the glory of developing fruits and seed heads. There was definitely a whiff of autumn in the air today. The nights are drawing in quite rapidly, and it won’t be too long, I guess, before we get the early morning mists developing over the waters of the canal. And eventually those first frosty mornings, with a weak sun forcing its rays through the mist. It’s definitely a canal for all seasons.

My style is ‘eclectic’ . . .

My tastes in art are as eclectic as those in music. I like what takes my fancy. And that makes me somewhat of a impulsive buyer.

Over almost three decades of living overseas – in South and Central America, and in the Philippines – and having also the opportunity of visiting many countries throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia, I have been able to pick up the odd piece of art (and jewelry for Steph), and a range of handicrafts.

Anyone visiting our home in the UK can expect to see works of art and handicraft ranging from painting, to sculptures, batik, and gourd carvings among others.

Taking center stage in our living room (over the mantelpiece) is an oil painting that I purchased at the weekly art fair in the JF Kennedy Park in Miraflores, Lima. It must have been January or February 1996 or so. I was in Lima for a genetic resources meeting among the centers of the CGIAR. On one Sunday morning we all decided to go down to Miraflores (from La Molina where we were staying at the headquarters of the International Potato Center – CIP). It was a bright, sunny day and many local artists were displaying their works along the various paths in the park. I had purchased a painting there in the late 1970s when I was working for CIP in Costa Rica, and was back in Lima for a visit.

Well, I saw this particular painting, and immediately the whole scene just caught my attention. I’d seen that scene (or something like it) many times – parents and two children – when I’d been out and about collecting potatoes in the province of Cajamarca in northern Peru  in 1974. The people of Cajamarca wear these beautiful reddish brown ponchos, and tall straw hats. And so this painting just resonated with me. Since I spoke Spanish I decided to haggle with the artist – he wanted about $175, but I was prepared to pay only $100. He wouldn’t accept that, so I walked on. On my next circuit, he’d dropped the price to $150, but still I wasn’t interested. As I walked round the park again, I took a crisp $100 bill from my wallet, ready to discuss with him again. I told him I had a $100 bill ready to hand over if he’d sell me the painting. The vision of cash in hand was too much for him, and so I was able to purchase this painting for $100 – a bargain. The painting is signed, but I’m not able to read it easily. I’ve tried to see if there are artists with a similar name in Peru, but haven’t had any luck yet. No matter. I like the painting, and it never ceases to bring me pleasure each day.

On a visit to Beijing, in about 1995, I picked up a couple of water colors of birds. They may not be of the highest quality, but they are quite good nevertheless.

Among the many Peruvian handicraft items we have are several carved gourds, known as mates burilados in Spanish. Many are made in the Mantaro Valley in Central Peru. The International Potato Center has its highland field station there (at over 3000 m) near Huancayo. My good friend Jim Bryan had good connections with one of the finest of the gourd carvers, and we purchased a number of excellent mates from him. Those on sale in the handicraft markets in Lima are quite nice but nowhere near the quality.

In the late 1970s, when I was in Costa Rica, I attended a Organization of American States meeting on agriculture in the Caribbean in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I was able to pick up a couple of nice carvings, one of a farmer, the other of a beggar.

The one on the left, standing about 80 cm, is carved from a single piece of wood. Despite having it carefully packed, and getting it back in one piece to San José, I knocked it over while waiting for my ride back down to Turrialba (and stepping off the curb and damaging a tendon in my foot, that had to be kept in plaster for almost six weeks), and it split between the hand and the pineapple fruit. The carving of the beggar (on the right) is about half the size of the farmer.

When I retired from IRRI in 2010, I was given a carving of a rice farmer as a leaving present. IRRI had been presenting these to retiring members of the Board of Trustees, and I’d thought that one of these carvings would make an excellent leaving present. And that’s what I suggested when asked if I had any ideas. Imagine my surprise at the despedida (actually the celebration dinner for IRRI’s 50th anniversary) when IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler presented me with one of the larger versions of the carving – normally they were about half this size – signed by the artist, Bernard Vista.

Bernard Vista comes from Pakil, on the east side of the Laguna de Bay, perhaps 35 km from Los Baños (at the bottom of the lake on this map). and has a studio (and cafe) there. Pakil and Paete are sister towns famous for their wood carvings

Another treasured possession – but not one I collected myself – is a glass-covered tray made of butterfly wings, encased in a mahogany frame.

My father bought that in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1930s when he worked for the White Star Line as ship’s photographer. It was on my parents’ wall for decades, and after they died, I inherited it. It takes pride of place (above the rice farmer) in an alcove just inside our front door.

Early morning cup of tea . . .

Tea – the elixir of life.

It was just before 6 am today. I was lying in bed, enjoying my early morning cup of tea, and waiting for the news bulletin on Radio 4 on the hour.

And I got to thinking about this photo of tea pickers in the highlands of Kenya that my friend Luigi had posted on Facebook yesterday. Tea is a very important crop in Kenya, and it now ranks as the world’s third largest producer, after China and India, with Sri Lanka and Turkey coming fourth and fifth, respectively. I’ve seen tea cultivation in Sri Lanka (above Kandy) and Indonesia (in the hills east-southeast of Bogor).

Tea is not, however, a crop that is native to Kenya, having originated in east Asia. And the same could be said for most of the plants we consume today. Just a quick survey of country of origin of fruits and vegetable on sale in supermarkets here in the UK demonstrates the global system of food production, and how far from their original regions of cultivation many of them have spread – beans from Kenya, asparagus from Peru, etc. The potato is referred to in the USA as the ‘Irish potato’ (presumably to distinguish it from the sweet potato, to which it is not related at all; or was it because of the dependence of the Irish in the 19th century on this one crop that led to mass emigration, most often to the USA, during and after the potato famine of the mid-1840s), but comes from the Andes of South America, with its greatest diversity in southern Peru and northern Bolivia. It’s now a major crop worldwide. Maize originated in the Americas but is a major staple today in many parts of Africa, although the major production area is the Corn Belt of the USA. Wheat originated in the Middle East, but major wheat-producing countries are the USA and Canada, Australia, and Russia. Rice is still the staple of Asia where it originated – probably in several centers of domestication.

In the 1980s, when I was on the faculty at the University of Birmingham, I taught a graduate course on crop evolution. I guess this interest in and research on crop origins had been instilled in me by Jack Hawkes, former head of the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham (and my PhD supervisor), and I continued my work on potatoes for more than 20 years before moving on to rice.

One of the reasons why I find the study of crop evolution so fascinating is that it is a synthesis of so many seemingly unrelated disciplines: the biology of the wild and domesticated plants themselves, their genetics and molecular biology, ecology, and use plant breeding and farming, as well as their history and archaeology, social context, and economics over the past 10,000 years or so since the beginnings of agriculture in the Middle East, in China, and in parts of South and Central America. An interesting introductory text for anyone interested in the origins of crops is Evolution of Crop Plants (1995) edited by Joe Smartt and Norman Simmonds.

Today, the application of molecular techniques is helping to unravel further the ancestry of crop plants, showing linkages to their related wild species, and opening up many opportunities of using these genetic resources for the benefit of farmers and consumers alike, making the crops we depend on more productive, climate resilient, and pest and disease resistant.

In the 1980s the two BBC TV series of Geoffrey Smith’s World of Flowers documented the origins and history of many of the flowers that we grow in our gardens today – roses, tulips, daffodils, fuchsias, dahlias, and lilies, to name just a few. Based on the success of these programs, I did contact the series producer and sent in a prospectus for a series of programs about the origins of crop plants.

I could imagine a program on potatoes, for example, that would take the viewer to the Andes of Peru, looking at indigenous potato cultivation, linking it to the origins of Inca agriculture and the archaeology of the coastal cultures, the wealth of diversity of more than 200 wild species in the Americas, how these are conserved in major genebank collections in the USA and Europe (as well as at the International Potato Center in Lima), and how this diversity is used in potato breeding. No longer would we take these crops for granted! And the same could be done for wheat and barley – the cereal staples of the Middle east, with its wealth of archaeology in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, maize in Mexico and coastal Peru, and many other examples.

I even spent some time with a BBC producer who visited me at Birmingham – but to no avail. While they liked the idea, there was no budget to do the programs justice. I could just imagine Sir David Attenborough waxing lyrical – in his inimitable way – about our food and where it comes from. Who knows – it might happen one day (but Sir D is an unlikely presenter given his age).

I was inspired . . .

That’s it. Games over. The countdown to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 has begun.

I feel kind of deflated today. I’m not a sportsman by any stretch of the imagination, although a few years before retiring I did become quite a badminton and swimming enthusiast. I haven’t continued either since returning to the UK, but do try to take a daily walk – weather and inclination permitting – of varying length between a couple of miles and about seven maximum.

But the past two weeks have seen me take my sports exercise vicariously through many hours of TV coverage on the BBC. I haven’t been able to watch the Olympic Games since 1988 (when they were held in Seoul), and the time difference with the UK didn’t make for the most convenient viewing. But during my 19 years in the Philippines, there was only scant coverage on the local TV channels, and very selective at that, and often only several months after the event (always interspersed of course with a plethora of adverts). The national sport of the Philippines is basketball. While I can and do appreciate the great athletic prowess of the top basketball players, the sport seems rather pointless to me. There again, I’m sure many cannot understand my interest in and love of cricket (it was once an Olympic sport!).

The slogan of the London 2012 games was Inspire a generation. And yes, I can say that they have inspired a(n older) generation – ME!. It’s hard not to marvel at the focus and dedication of the athletes participating in the Games. Clearly winning an Olympic medal of whatever colour takes dedication to the exclusion of almost any other aspect of what most of us would regard as a normal life. The days when one could turn up for a few hours training every now and then and go on to win a medal at the Olympic Games are long gone. It’s a full-time commitment, supported by coaches, psychologists, physiotherapists, and managers. Let’s not forget that many of the athletes are full-time sportsmen and women, although few enjoy the financial rewards of the USA basketball players for example, or can expect the sponsorship that an athlete like Usain Bolt must already receive; or the tennis players for whom the Olympics was just another fixture on a busy schedule of international tournaments – although this one had no prize money to offer, just the glory of winning an Olympic medal (nevertheless, well done Andy Murray).

The TV coverage here in the UK was, for the most part, of a high standard, and thank goodness we didn’t experience the Games NBC-style, so I’m led to believe, with incessant advert breaks and some of the major events (such as the Men’s 100 m sprint) not even broadcast live! Some of the camerawork could have been better – but that wasn’t the fault of the BBC, since the images were, I believe, provided by a special Olympics broadcast company. Although quite a number of the presenters were below par, Clare Balding was certainly the best of those commentating – on several events including the swimming and equestrian events. Ian Thorpe, the Australian multi-gold medal swimmer was also a great addition to the BBC team, as was Michael Johnson, the 200 and 400 m sprint gold medalist from the USA. Many others appeared to have been instructed to fill every quiet moment with incessant and repetitive chatter, instead of letting the images speak for themselves (but I already posted a blog about my irritation in this regard). And some of the ‘insensitive’ questioning of competitors who had ‘failed’ to win gold, or any medal for that matter, was ridiculous. I half expected someone to answer How the f*** do you think I feel?

So what did inspire me? On the mainstream channels there was a focus on sports in which Team GB was expected to do rather better: rowing, cycling, and athletics. But there was also good cover of the various equestrian events (dressage was a revelation – especially Charlotte Dujardin’s choice of ‘patriotic’ music for her gold medal routine in the individual event, including the theme from the World War II movie The Great Escape and Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory; given that our closest rivals and multi-winners were the Germans, I wonder whether this music was chosen on purpose). But I did get to watch some of the hockey, canoeing (something I’d never really seen before), volleyball (although beach volleyball – bikinis notwithstanding – doesn’t interest me), judo, taekwondo, and gymnastics, but very little weightlifting or Graeco-Roman wrestling.

But you have to marvel at the inspiring performance of the rowers and cyclists (both road and track – especially Bradley Wiggins road time trial gold a week after winning the Tour de France), the beauty of seeing Mo Farah take the 10,000 and 5,000 m distance events (the only ones which actually had me on my feet yelling at the TV!), the awesome Jamaican sprinters, and the USA Women’s 100 m relay team who broke a 26 year old record. Perhaps the best performance on the track was that of Kenyan David Rudisha who led from the front in the Men’s 800 m and even broke the world record, something that is normally achieved only at the regular ‘professional’ athletics events where a pace-setter is employed to ensure that fast times are clocked. Long jump champion Greg Rutherford from Team GB had slipped under the radar; once he’d posted his winning leap there wasn’t much competition. In the pool the USA team was awesome, but the performances of the young Chinese swimmer Shiwen Ye, Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte,  and American Katie Ledecky, 16, 15 and 15 respectively, stand out. Michael Phelps – what more can I say?

I learnt a lot about sports I knew little about before the Games. I can now wax lyrical about strategy in the cycling keirin, or the finer points of dressage’s piaffe, passage, extended trot and flying changes. But I still find it odd at the end of a BMX cycle race to discover that the participants are not 10-year-old kids, but men and women in their 20s and even 30s; and taekwondo is lost on me. Surprisingly I found the women’s boxing interesting, and Team GB gold medalist Nicola Adams is surely an inspiration to anyone interested in sport – what a smile and bright and breezy attitude.

Team GB dominated the cycling, rowing and boxing events, and had several significant wins in the athletics track and field. After the Beijing 2008 games, the track cycling authorities decided to limit participation in each event to one entry per nation – apparently because of the domination of Team GB. Well, we still dominated, taking seven of the 10 gold medals on offer.

And if you want to find out any statistics at all about who won what and how, this BBC link provides a medals table and a complete breakdown sport by sport. Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal has published an alternative medals list, awarding gold to nations that came last in its events. Apparently Team GB topped that list. Not surprising really, given that Great Britain & Northern Ireland were allowed to field teams in all events, as host nation, even if they had not met the Olympic qualifying standard.

Many of the venues were spectacular: the velodrome, the aquatics center, the main stadium itself. It was inspiring to hold the equestrian events at Greenwich (behind the Naval College, and along the prime meridian) from where the whole of London could be seen during the cross country eventing. And so many others – such as the road cycling, the triathlon, and the marathon all passed many of London’s skyline iconic buildings. What a backdrop for these different sports.

And finally, what about the Opening and Closing Ceremonies? I already posted a blog about the Opening Ceremony. I thoroughly enjoyed that event. And last night’s Closing Ceremony was equally spectacular – but different. I read one review this morning that said there had been no ‘wow’ moment. I think there was, and that was the video of John Lennon joining the schoolchildren singing Imagine. It was totally unexpected, sent shivers down my spine, and brought a tear to my eye. You can watch the official video on YouTube.

I have to say that I even thought the Spice Girls did their bit rather well, and it was amazing to see and hear the reaction of the audience in the stadium to the Freddie Mercury segment, as though he were actually performing. Here’s a link to the full ceremony on the BBC Sports website.

I didn’t visit London during the games, so am unable to comment firsthand on what everyone is talking about: the welcome and enthusiasm of the 70,000 volunteers or Games Makers, as well as the excellent security arrangements provided by the armed services.

Yes, we’ve seen a lot of the Union Jack these past 17 days, and heard our national anthem sung – with gusto – rather a lot. And what’s more, the real winner perhaps was the weather (after such a bleak and depressing build up to the Games). So the Games brought a smile to our faces, and made our hearts swell with pride – if even for just a short time. London – you did us proud. Well done!

What will Rio 2016 bring us? Well, golf will be included (why, for heaven’s sake) but windsurfing has been dropped. I think there’s going to be a LOT of samba in both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. And despite my lack of enthusiasm for beach volley, that event from Ipanema Beach will be iconic. I wonder how small a tanga can get?

Among the green hills . . .

Powis Castle. A jewel among the rolling hills of mid-Wales just south of Welshpool, on the border with the English county of Shropshire, some 80 miles by road from my home in Bromsgrove.

The original fortress was built around 1200, but over several hundred years it was extensively rebuilt and remodelled, reaching its zenith in the late 17th century under the Stuarts and into the 18th century. While many castles in Wales were built by the Normans post conquest to keep the Welsh under control, Powis Castle was built and retained by a local family, the Herberts, who accumulated power and were given titles under various monarchs, especially the Stuart monarchs Charles II and James II.

The Herberts fought on the Royalist side in the English Civil War, and the castle was eventually occupied by Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces. The Herberts were Catholic, and the then Lord Powis went into exile with James II in 1689, although his lands and estate were returned in about 1725.

Built on a craggy rock, the castle and gardens owe much to 17th century investment, with formal gardens laid out on a series of very steep terraces cascading down from the house to a large lawn and formal garden that was once a vegetable and fruit garden.

All around are quite large, sculptured yew trees that were planted in the 1680s. Originally they were allowed to grow ‘naturally’ but in the 19th century the change in horticultural taste was for a more formal look.

The terraces are full of colour, and the garden staff have taken great care to label many of the plants.

In the 18th century, one of the Herbert daughters married the son of Clive of India, and the castle houses a large collection of Clive memorabilia. While the National Trust owns and manages the buildings and gardens, it does not own many of the furnishings. As a consequence photography is not permitted inside the castle, so the only photos I have to show are external views of the castle and round the gardens.

The weather was fantastic, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Powis.

More rabbit than Sainsbury’s

I’m not a great sports fan, on the whole. But, from time-to-time, I do enjoy watching some. Cricket is a particular favorite. And recent GB successes in cycling and rowing have caught my attention.

With the Olympics upon us, there’s a plethora of sports to watch, although I’m not able (easily) to access all 26 channels. The TV coverage on the BBC has been quite good, and I’d rate it higher were it not for the commentators and pundits and their incessant chatter. Alongside each professional commentator it seems that there now has to be an expert – even if they have little or no TV commentating experience.

. . . coz you wont stop talkin,
why dont you give it a rest?,
you got more rabbit than Sainsburys . . .

It seems that the current policy at the BBC is to fill every second with commentary – whether it’s needed or not. In the men’s cycle road race last Saturday, Chris Boardman (the expert – well, he did win a gold medal in Barcelona at the 1992 Olympic Games) was rabbiting on throughout, constantly repeating himself, and surmising what the riders would do. It was worse during the men’s 10m synchronized diving competition on Monday. After each dive a slow motion (and ultra slow motion) repeat was shown. And each time the ‘expert’ had to remind us that the judges didn’t see this – they made their (subjective) decisions in real time. Slo-mo showed up the discrepancies between the divers in great detail.

Frankly, today’s presenters and pundits could take a leaf out of the books of cricket and golf commentators – famous for their minimalist and witty comments. Even commentating on cricket on the radio commentators like the late Brian Johnston or John Arlott never assaulted our audio senses with incessant chatter; likewise Peter Alliss in golf.

But in this hi-tech and fast-moving age it seems that the pace of commentating has to match the speed of the action, instead of letting the magic of the images speak for themselves.

And in case you are wondering about the meaning of ‘more rabbit than Sainsbury’s, just click here, and hear Cockney duo Chas & Dave in the song that made this phrase famous.