Thursday, 21 May 2009

Grokking Pizza

Are you familar with the term "grok" ? If you are, then go back to your code hacking and read no further.

Yesterday I made a pizza for my daughter. I was showing off, because the day before I had managed to assemble pasta with some sort of sauce and salad which was greeted with a positive sounding "Hrummph". Flushed with success I thought I would up my game and go for the pizza.

When I say "made a pizza" I am perhaps stretching the definition of "made". What I mean is that I took a packaged pizza from the fridge, read the instructions and carried them out. The instructions were crystal clear - remove packaging, place on tray, set oven to 220 degrees for 12 minutes. All these things I did, exactly as instructed.

Imagine my surprise therefore when the oven beeped after 12 minutes, I opened the door and, hey presto, there was the pizza BURNT TO A SMOKING WRECK!

This has happened to me before. Not with pizza but with other things. I burnt tomato soup because the instructions said to put it in a saucepan over the heat for 5 minutes and when I came back the soup had vanished completely apart from an accusing stain around the edge of the pan which I had to throw away as I couldn't clean it. I once boiled an egg so hard that I was able to bounce it off the wall.

There is something about following cooking instructions that just doesn't seem to work for me. This, I have come to understand, is because I don't "grok" cooking.

I mentioned the pizza fiasco to several people and they immediately said "ah, fan oven, knock a few minutes off the time". I rechecked the instructions. Nowhere did it say to knock a few minutes off the time for a fan oven. I checked my oven. Nowhere does it say "I am a fan oven and I will burn your pizza to a crisp unless you knock a few minutes off". How am I supposed to know these things?

Apparently I should just "know". People who cook just "know". A pinch of salt? They "know" what I pinch of salt it. When I put in a pinch of salt it immediately renders my food inedible. A "dash" of whatever? They "know" what a dash is.

To "grok" something is to "know" it in such a fundamental way that it becomes part of you. The knowledge seeps into your bones. It's way, way beyond learning something. It just "is".

You can "grok" all sorts of things. I used to "grok" maths, in school that is. I never seemed to have to learn it, I just knew it and I couldn't understand why other people seemed to struggle their way through it step by step - until I got to university and suddenly had to learn some maths. Boy, did it feel odd. I still got decent marks but I knew deep inside that I didn't grok it anymore. Something was gone. It was quite sad in a way. For a while I rediscovered this feeling of really "grokking" something when I was an Assembler programmer in the mid-80's. That's long gone now.

I can and do learn new things. I learn the Wu-style Tai Chi long form and I practise it over and over. But when I perform it alongside my Tai Chi master, whilst to the untrained eye we probably look identical, I know that I have just learnt it and he really "groks" it.

I wonder if I will ever get that grokking feeling again. That complete immersion in something where you know it and it knows you as if it was part of you. Beyond intuition. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I do in some areas but don't realise it.

However I can assure you that cooking is one thing that I will never grok. I remember the day we launched the internet bank, Egg plc, back in 1998. We had a long day and I decided to make myself something to eat before the evening's launch activity really kicked off. I put my microwave meal in the machine, pressed the buttons and got on with my work. Next thing I know the fire alarms were screaming, a fire-engine arrived and the whole building was cleared of several hundred angry people, hard at work trying to get everything lined up for launch.

As we stood around outside, shivering, the head firefighter came out with a weary look on his face "No panic" he says "it was just some idiot who had warmed up his dinner in the microwave for 40 instead of 4 minutes". Grok that!

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