Monday, February 28, 2005

Zingers

Wherein I feature a few nuggets I came across in my reading - ala Flaubert's Dictionnaire des Idées Reçus (Dictionary of Received Ideas). This time an Anglo-Saxon edition:

As a counterpoint to Malcolm Bradbury's witty turn that I previously pointed out:

I like the English, They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.

I found this earlier and more caustic outburst from Evelyn Waugh at the height of his powers in Brideshead Revisited:
You must remember that I am not English; I cannot understand this keen zest to be well-bred. English snobbery is more macabre to me even than English morals.

Even bleaker from the same source:
"My dear, of course I'm right. I was right years ago when I warned you... I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail... Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love, it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you."



From Martin Amis who, in the past couple of years, has returned to the kind of groove that made his reputation as one of the most interesting writers alive.
Xan would not publicly agree, but women naturally like to prolong routine departures. It is the obverse of their fondness for keeping people waiting. Men shouldn't mind this. Being kept waiting is a moderate reparation for their five million years in power.
Martin Amis - Yellow Dog

Amis continues to dabble in non-fiction and occasionally a similar incisiveness can be seen. From a column on football (the association kind):
The days when an England player's first touch could often be mistaken for an attempted clearance or a wild shot on goal - those days are over. The deficit is not in individual skill, it is in collective skill; it is in the apparently cultural indifference to possession.
Martin Amis - We have to face it: English football is just no good

See other toli zingers

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Best Left Unread

I am cursed with the need to always finish any novel that I start. It's a strange twist on the completist syndrome. Thus it was that midway through reading Iris Murdoch's novel, The Bell, I found myself writing the following:

It's not as if there was no "there" there - for indeed there was. It's rather that what was there was neither here nor there, neither fish nor fowl, as it were.

Now that was a kind of impressionistic response to what had been increasingly irking me as I turned the pages. Also the style of those sentences was very much in line with the kind of inbred, literary writing that I was reading.

So how did it come to that? I've read some Iris Murdoch before and liked it all, she normally writes perceptive comedies of manners and the like, irony is her thing. Also The Bell came highly recommended to me - by whom I can't remember.

Serious literature was the advertisement but limpid cleverness was all I got.

I should have seen the warning signs when it turned out that the introduction was by A.S. Byatt. Now there's another author who's hit-and-miss. I loved Angels and Insects but what about Possession? That was chock-full with literary in-jokes and mysteries that amounted to a cup of tea. Unbelievably it won the Booker Prize and a Hollywood flick on top of that.

So what then are the ingredients of The Bell?

A lay community is attached to an Abbey. Proximity to the order of enclosed nuns is meant to heighten the titillation quotient. There are errant wives possibly returning to pre-occupied husbands, love triangles, twins, adolescent confusion about the first steps of love, a swirl of homosexuality is in the mix. There are failed priests and schoolboy misunderstandings. Everyone is off balance. People can't decide where they stand or if they stand. I guess it's meant to be unnerving and that you're not supposed to like the characters.

All this sounds vaguely promising but there is neither comedy nor manners, nor much of anything.

Normally this would be a recipe for something akin to a farce. In a different medium and era, this could be like Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. But no. The denouement when it comes is worth half a smile but not even a chuckle. The inevitable "tragedy" is not tragic. The lessons learned are lost. So what was the point? Or was all this a meta-point about the human condition?

Later on I checked and read that Murdoch was an authority on Sartre and existentialism. That explains something about on why she treats her topics of sex and religion so programmatically. But someone should have warned me. Anyway why go on about it? I finished the novel after all.

Most worrying to me is that I've just gone through a trifecta of books best left unread. This got me thinking: I write a lot about things that I like and occasionally about things that I hate, but what about those things that leave me mostly indifferent? What about the "why did they bother" factor? Shouldn't I be getting bilious about them? After all I invest a fair amount of time in my constant reading. I've got a day job and more worries than I can help.

Consider this post then, an attempt to work myself into a frenzy and remind myself to pick more judiciously in the future. It's fair enough if you dislike, but don't end up indifferent.

Here, to conclude, are a couple more wet socks that should have remained on the unread pile: you won't hate them, but trust me, you won't love them.

The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Self-absorbed musicologist and vain opera singer retreating into the Amazon jungle to discover the sounds of lost tribes... Very clever, I suppose. And musical erudition is on display. Also something of a travel journal, Latin American coups and sundry dysfunction abound - a Conrad-like effect is what he's aiming for. It's probably a parable about a return to innocence lost or Eden or something. But did I care? High concept but nigh unreadable. The great cuban writer loses himself... in himself.

Original Bliss by A.L. Kennedy

I felt strangely empty after reading this novel. True, there are blighted and diseased souls and, a priori, they should make for interesting subjects. But just because you write well about deviants and their unlikely relationships with bored housewives doesn't make things meaningful... I wish I could hate it but all I can say is overrated.

Or did I miss the point? Was there actually some "there" there?

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A Soul Jazz Thing

The great organist Jimmy Smith left us on February 8th at the age of 79. I was especially saddened to hear of his passing because I had started an appreciation piece on him last December but never completed it as these things are wont to go. He truly was the heart of soul jazz.

The various obituaries were universally respectful and admiring of his talent, noting his considerable influence; but it struck me that many were damning him with faint praise:

He blended jazz, blues, R&B, bebop and even gospel into an exciting stew - an idiom that produced many imitators, followers and fans.

Fair enough, I suppose, but when you say blended, I think of tepid purée not the kind of propulsive music that sprung from Smith's hands. This is a man, in a category of his own, who was dubbed the "Emperor of the Hammond Organ". He featured, like the Kings, Dukes and Counts, among the royalty of the jazz tradition.

Pardon me, if you will, while I set the record straight:
Soul Jazz is ecstatic music.
It's about the blowing sessions that happen after the main show, long past the midnight hour, when the lights are low and the musicians are loose and playing for keeps. At the after-party jam, it's all about earthly delights, loosened ties and unbuttoned collars. You'll hear complex grooves and humourous exchanges in the music: Can you top this? they're asking.

There'll be virtuosity that will make you stand up, thump your feet and rumble with someone close. The laughs are heartier and the flirtations are more intense. It's a celebration of the sensual and the sacred. Musically, it's the funky, greasy blues of back-alley jook joints with the prospect of the Good Lord the next day.

And Jimmy Smith best illustrated this notion: after playing through the night at the grimiest of speakeasies, you would find him on the organ at the church service in the morning, energetically lacing melodies to punctuate the reverend's call. All the while, the crowd from the previous night would be nursing their hangovers in soul claps amongst the congregation.

Consider the one-two punch of Midnight Special, which is about as earthy as these things come, and the revival and church hall vibe of Prayer Meetin'. They are part and parcel of this innovative musical conception. Smith's music speaks loudly and was heavily sampled by hip-hoppers and revered by the acid jazz/rare groove crowd. The aesthetic of A Tribe called Quest sprung fully formed from this soul jazz confection. Exciting is the least of it.

Herewith then, this month's soul jazz playlist bookended by Jimmy Smith's groove.

The Sermon

Jimmy Smith - The Sermon

The title track, a 20 minute affair, is what is says it is: a musical sermon. It's a relaxed affair, founded on an insistent back beat of the kind that Jamerson and co. would later pepper all of Motown with. It's not overbearing; the preacher is in his prime and knows what he's doing. It ebbs and flows as the message is delivered full-throated by the choir. The soloists let their hair down and the music builds up. It's an all-star cast on the church floor. The intent is to make people start yearning for the promised land. Exclamations and outbursts proliferate and everyone has ample opportunity to shine. The solos on the rest of the album are in the same vein, demonstrating to all and sundry that, with the Hammond organ on hand, there was no one quite like Jimmy Smith.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Natural Soul

Lou Donaldson - The Natural Soul

Mixed in with shaking works like Nice 'n' Greasy and Funky Mama are fluid and inventive approaches to old standards by Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lou Donaldson is a wonderful musician full of humour and here everything flows easily as befits a natural soul.

Never Let me Go

Stanley Turrentine - Never Let me Go

Stanley Turrentine's artful saxophone and lazy organ courtesy of Shirley Scott makes for heavenly jazz. For those late nights...

Sonny Clark

Sonny Clark - Cool Struttin'

This is the closest to staightforward hard bop as you'll get from this playlist. But the sounds of this album speak to that transcendant "feel" that is soul. It's not a blowing session but the musicians are in a playful mood. All the ingredients combine and the core of the genre is plainly evident.

Ready for Freddie

Freddie Hubbard - Ready for Freddie

Earlier albums like Hub Tones were about displaying the fireworks and technical mastery of his instrument that put him in the league of the best jazz trumpeters of all time. Ready for Freddie is Hubbard's most cohesive album and shows his virtues as a band leader and composer. Those who think that Miles Davis was the end-all on the trumpet need to consider the likes of Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown or Donald Byrd and, on the evidence of this album, Freddie Hubbard. Trading with Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and rythymn section of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Art Davis, this is a portrait of a band in full. A decade later, firmly established as an all-star, he could go on to the much-beloved Red Clay. But in the music of this moment, the world was ready for him and Freddie was a monster.

Straight No Filter

Hank Mobley - Straight No Filter

Whereas Soul Station is his consensus masterpiece, this posthumous release of the sessions that comprise Straight No Filter is a great introduction to the rarefied sounds of Hank Mobley. For a decade, everyone worth his salt in jazz knew that a gig with Hank was just the right thing. He made no apologies with his compositions and was game for revisiting standards in interesting new ways. "Yes Indeed" could well stand in for a sermon and Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock and Philly Joe Jones turn it up a notch. The aura of these sessions is mellow crepuscule.

Mercy Mercy Mercy

Cannonball Adderley Quintet - Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!

Although sub-titled "Live at 'The Club'", this was actually a studio affair. The album aimed to recapture that loose club feeling with friends showing up for a good time and free booze. And it works. There's Fun, Games, and even a Sack O' Woe as the Adderley brothers (Nat and Cannonball) do their thing. Joe Zawinul's compositions also played an important part in the way in which this group gelled.

Alternatively you can go for the Country Preacher album which was indeed recorded live at a revival for Operation Breadbasket and which features a young Jesse Jackson exhorting the appreciative audience onwards and upwards. But trust me, you can't go wrong with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!

Idle Moments

Grant Green - Idle Moments

Is this the greatest jazz guitar album ever? Well it's a close-run thing. Maybe Smokin' at the Half Note gets the edge, but I wouldn't be so presumptious. Idle Moments captures Grant Green and company making magic. Bobby Hutcherson is on the vibes, Joe Henderson growls on the tenor sax and Duke Pearson is all empathy on the piano. They didn't plan for the title cut to be that long but sessions like these are supposed to be unhurried affairs. Simply inspirational music that we have the great fortune to be able to listen to time and again. This is about as good as it gets.

The Worm

Jimmy McGriff - The Worm

An organist who followed in Jimmy Smith's path, McGriff found his own style and took the instrument in a different direction. It's more percussive and danceable, he's aiming towards the funky edge of the continuum. The liner notes defy you to sit down through this album. I can testify to their veracity.

Back at the Chicken Shack

Jimmy Smith - Back at the Chicken Shack

And finally we're back where it begins, at the blues shack. This album is one of my favourites from Blue Note and Jimmy Smith's finest moment. Cratediggers like DJ Shadow are forever enthused by the album cover but for me it's the music inside that matters and, when it comes to that, the guns are drawn from the first note: insistent, intelligent and nasty fun ensues.

I can see Jimmy hunched over the organ. Kenny Burrell on guitar, and Stanley Turrentine on saxophone are egging him on and trading funky licks and hard-bop runs. He's sweating profusely yet he's still cool enough to wink to that sister in the corner table to seal the deal. Smiles and loaded looks are exchanged.
Later on baby. There'll be time enough afterwards. For now, just lay back and listen to this. I'm in the cut.
I miss you Jimmy. Wherever you are, stay locked into the groove.

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Monday, February 21, 2005

People, Processes and Things

A product I worked on a few years ago had as its mantra: "people, processes and things". As a marketing message, the slogan's usefulness left a lot to be desired; the catch-all "things" seemed an imprecise cop-out at best. The product dutifully died a quiet death even if it is being reinvented these days. As a rough taxonomy of software applications however, the slogan was a serviceable description of the different areas we focused on. Software architecture is difficult to articulate in any case so fuzzy handwaving of this sort is the norm.

Two recent posts gave me cause to revisit these notions. The earlier one, from Barry Briggs, was a speech wherein he anointed this era the Decade of Process. The second was Jamie Zawinski's takedown of "groupware". Both are interesting takes on these different approaches to software.

On People



Writing in his ever quotable and blunt way, jwz packs a lot of insight into why it's a case of "Groupware BAD... Users Good".
On why people want to write software:
Our focus in the client group had always been to build products and features that people wanted to use. That we wanted to use. That our moms wanted to use.
Adam Bosworth similarly talked about the Mom factor in the design of applications.

More generally, he comes around to one of the pithiest definitions of social software.
So I said, narrow the focus. Your "use case" should be, there's a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?...

"Social software" is about making it easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up.
There's lots more in this vein: why words like workflow or enterprise make his eyes glaze over, why groupware is an albatross, how that kind of software is not sexy etc.

The wider insight however is that Zawinski's argument is about focusing on people. It's a recognition that human beings are simply very social beasts and that we place a premium on communications. That's why phone, email and instant-messaging are the big applications of the day. When designing applications in this space, it's mostly a matter of getting out of the way and letting exchanges and interactions occur. Browsers and the web servers are some of the best software incarnations of this principle.

This focus on people, on connectivity and on simple communications is all part of longstanding historical trends in transportation and communications systems. This has been covered most fully by Andrew Odlyzko you can read him on read on why Content is not King, or more exhaustively on the history of communications and its implications for the Internet (pdf).

Among the core architectural principles of the internet are things like the "end-to-end" principle and internet transparency. I like to think of these as engineering tradeoffs in network design that are premised upon the virtue of connectivity. The network "laws" that apparently grow out of these design principles are things like Metcalfe's law on network utility or Reed's law on group-forming. These ideas embody more than mere connectivity however, and the software that builds on top of them is similarly diverse.

Once you move beyond simple person-to-person communications and information sharing, you get into what is the daily bread of those folks at CUE and Many-to-Many and begin to consider the ways in which humans organize themselves. You very quickly start talking about interaction trends in families, clans, tribes, groups and more generally about communities. This "stuff", the cement of society, if you like, is something that sociologists or anthropologists have greater facility in describing and something that software developers have, on the whole, done a poor job of translating.

When you consider how organizations operate there's lots that is implicit and most software has been a blunt tool where a light touch has been required. Just as an example, in most software, things have to be explicitly stated: I'm a member of this group, so-and-so is my friend etc. And even when software can infer or recommend things, oftentimes it is inexact and requires much fine-tuning and/or constant training.

If you take a wider view, you move from the realm of sociology and begin to talk about economics, about commerce, about capital and about ultimately about power. Once business and money comes into it, you understand that are vast quantities of software that address the needs of these other entities. It's obvious that not everyone will be able to write software like Zawinski has (Netscape) that has indeed changed the world and can be strictly focused on users, connectivity and communications. What makes users happy often doesn't coincide with what makes businesses happy - and as for the matter of motivation of software developers, the most salient fact is that businesses tend to pay large and regular amounts.

On processes



I'd argue then that the picture is wider one than simply "people" and that's where I'd return to Briggs' piece on processes. I didn't know Briggs when he was at Lotus but it's clear that we've drunk from the same Kool-Aid: I've used similar examples as he in presentations in the past year, working as I am on forms technology, namely:
Five thousand years ago on Crete people wrote documents in a script we later termed Linear B. When Sir Arthur Evans at the turn of the last century unearthed the tablets at Knossos, the world wondered at them, but for decades could not read them. Then, in 1940, a British scholar named Michael Ventris announced to the world that he had, in fact, deciphered the tablets and that they were in a form of archaic Greek

The world held its breath. Were they previously unknown epic poems, like the Iliad or the Odyssey? Were they great plays by some long-forgotten ancestor of Sophocles or Aristophanes? Were they philosophical discourses by a forebear of Socrates or Plato?

No. They were lists. Lists of sheep. Cows. Horses. Slaves. What we would call today inventories, bills of lading, invoices. To our chagrin, we realized that then, at the dawn of history, these citizens of archaic Greece -- like those of Sumer in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, like those in Egypt -- lived in a rigidly bureaucratized dictatorship.

They were empires of accountants.

Why do I recount all this? Because our little tale highlights something important, which is that commerce, trade, and the documents that record them lie at the core of the human essence. We are creatures of commerce; it is innate to the very notion of humanity.

Brigg's point is that even though we have wonderful things like literature, it is likely that the invention of writing systems was prompted by mundane bureacratic concerns. He goes on from there to sketch a vision of the type of software that can be created in this area. As befits a speech, there's a little hyperbole in what he says but also an essential truth: process isn't the sexiest of things - but it's an integral and necessary component of society.

As we translate increasing amounts of processes into software, one hopes that we can learn the lessons of the most satisfying aspects of software. At its best, process should be frictionless and unobtrusive like most infrastructure. Why spend an afternoon at the registry of motor vehicles going from queue to queue, filling one form after the other when much of that you can be automated in software? What I fear is lost as we create this software are things like institutional memory and the people-component (the man who explains what that checkbox really means, being able to scribble in the margins of a form, what happens when the next person in a "workflow" is out of the office, or his mail quota has been exceeded etc). There's lots of room for innovation and improvement here.

The terms that have been used about software that aids collaboration have all been unsatisfactory. They have been mostly opaque terms (groupware, knowledge management etc) overloaded and hyped by marketing teams. Correspondingly also, lots of software in this area has been unsatisfactory even if very useful for some groups whether it's mailing lists, usenet. The flight to a quality term like "social software" that people like Clay Shirky have spurred in recent years is an exercise to escape the stigma of the reigning software. I heartily endorse that effort but when I pass the hungry salesmen in the corridor that are trying to sell software for my company, I know that that effort will be in vain. If it's between their year-end bonuses and calling something "social software", you know what's going to win. Thus I predict that our vocabulary for software that supports groups, organizations and communities will continue to be contaminated.

But what about the reality of social software? What collaboration software will be likely to be successful? For me it is clear that one has to start with the platform consideration and from that standpoint we are dealing with the internet and the web and browser clients. Web-native applications, things like wikis for example are going to be part of the picture, not necessarily because they are better but because being based on the most dominant and scaleable platform that we have is virtue enough. More generally, it is going to be applications that take into account the architecture of the web and the internet that will succeed. These will be applications that understand the proposition of identifying resources, the virtue of URIs etc. Those who ignore the lessons of Roy Fielding do so at their peril.

Software that is targeting people will live and die by usability. Those who design software that underlies processes tend to think that they are immune from this but I believe that the same basic principles of interaction design will ultimately apply. No one particularly likes the bureaucracy of process but there's a trait of subversion and resistance in human beings that will undermine any poor tools foisted on them. Paying attention to this will be an important part of success.

On Things



I'll be delphic and try to weasel out of defining what those elusive "things" are. For me, they are a convenient proxy for everything that doesn't fit within the people and process views of things. For businesses, it's relatively mundane things like "documents" that need to be "managed" or keeping track of assets or items we manufacture. Another way to think about 'things' is to consider that people are creative and exist in a culture; software can be applied to the creative process and to establish a sense of place and shared context in society. Some term it "content", more generally it's entertainment, it's the music, the movies, the books that people are interested in and want to participate in and discuss. There's also that whole segment of the software industry, games, that is highly profitable and which seems to be driving things of late - the virtue of idlenesss I suppose.

I'll end by reiterating: people need to communicate so get out of their way and let them collaborate and exchange. Groups, communities and organizations often embody processes, and when using software in support of them, aim for unobtrusiveness and, most crucially, leverage this great network architecture that we have. As for the rest, well that will sort itself out, Darwin and Adam Smith have a lot to say here.

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Udell vrs Traoré?

So Jon Udell, in the midst of demonstrating the increasing maturity of query languages (XPath and XQuery) on xml databases, generates statistics of bloggers he reads who most frequently cite books on Amazon.com.

In analyzing the data, it is clear that I'm one of those who mines the zeitgeist, peppering my posts with literary and musical references. That's not news to anyone who reads me and indeed its for that reason that I moonlight at that sinister cabal called Blogcritics.

What drew my interest however was a little technical quirk. If you look at the results for this blog you'll notice a link formatted as follows.

Cooking with Rokia Traoré

Thus Traoré begat

Traoré
I wondered: what happened here?

Now I created my post in a text editor, Notetab, on Windows. I have muscle memory so that typing Alt + 0233 for the e-acute symbol (é) is no problem. I find it faster to typing that than recalling the alternative html entity for that symbol
é

Blogger generates an Atom 0.3 xml feed encoded in UTF-8 and if I inspect the feed, I see the following:
<title mode="escaped" 
type="text/html">Cooking with Rokia Traoré</title>

In other words, the Alt + 0233 character is preserved in the feed. Good. At least Blogger is out of the loop.

The question then is how did an escaped Alt + 0233 become
&#195;&#169;
once it reached into Jon's xml datastore and was extracted by an xquery?

Ever since I implemented the html export features in Freelance Graphics back in 1997, the bane of my existence in every project has been "special characters". It's always at the end of the project once the internationalization testing begins and there's always 3 weeks or so of trying to fix issues that ultimately boil down to how "special characters" are treated. I made the mistake of writing up some memos on my experiences and from there folks at work got the impression that I was on top of such things.

But it's not clear that that there's any real answer to encoding and character issues. Sometimes it's just a simple bug, more often though, it requires forensic investigations and following a data trail. It's all about the confusing interactions between different markup languages whether html or xml, the programming languages used whether C, Java or Javascript (ever try using Javascript data arrays as your transfer format?), the formatting rules of your resource files, the transfer and wire protocols whether http, corba/iiop, configuration issues on server software, by-fiat decisions and bugs in various browsers (I'll just sniff some characters in your data and make a best guess as to the format and silently ignore the specified encoding), operating systems and databases programs to cite just a few of the actors in this area.

There's even a more recent pattern of errors that arise when one generates fragments of markup that are then aggregated as in feeds and in portlets generating web pages. Here, you better hope that the parent or outer container has 'done the right thing' and declared the right character encoding in the right place, http header, meta tag or declaration because it's too late by the time you are generating your output.

And to think that in this case it's just an é symbol I was curious about. It wasn't even a quote or ampersand. Would it matter if I was posting in arabic or chinese? These are the types of character encoding issues that drive Sam Ruby and Mark Pilgrim (back when he was on the internet) to distraction.

Inquiring minds want to know: who mangled poor Rokia Traoré?

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

King Leopold Haunts Congo Again

As a son of an African journalist, the BBC World Service tends to act as my alarm clock. And so on Thursday morning, I woke up to the sounds of a bizarre story:

A statue of former Belgian colonial King Leopold II has been re-erected in the centre of the Democratic Republic of Congo capital, Kinshasa.

Now it seemed clear to me that I must have been in the middle of a dream and so I thought nothing better of it. In the afternoon though, my curiosity stirred, I checked their news site and found to my amazement that indeed, it was true: Leopold's statue was back up.
King Leopold II set up the Congo Free State in 1885 as his personal possession and left arguably the worst legacy of all the European colonial regimes... He turned the country into a massive labour camp, made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its wild rubber, and contributed in a large way to the death of perhaps 10 million innocent people.

Culture Minister Christophe Muzungu said people should not just see the negative side of the king - they should also look at the positive aspects.

"We are restoring the history of our country because a people without history is a people without a soul," he said.

I sputtered and struggled to find the appropriate historical analogue to this decision. It was as if the Chechens had decided to put up Stalin's statue in Grozny - he who had decimated their ranks 60 years ago by deporting all of them from their lands in forced marches to Siberia - or perhaps as if the mayor of Gaza took it to his head to erect Ariel Sharon's statue (or a new monument to Saddam in Kurdistan?).

Leopold's depredations were so grotesque and occurred on such a scale that even the other colonial powers had to take pause in their scramble for African loot. The Belgian behavior was the kind of thing that would queer the whole colonial enterprise and indeed the twentieth century's first significant talk about human rights was on the Congo issue. In much the same way, the images from Abu Ghraib prompted a (slight) sense of unease in the recent US empire building. More to the point, the colonial experience under Leopold set Congo on a downward path that it has never been able to escape.

Now I've read King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild's highly recommended study of that macabre period and was justifiably horrified at the historical record that he laid out: greed, megalomania mixed with atrocious labour camps, summary amputations, decapitations and outright larceny, all covered in the bromides of a missionary humanitarianism. Almost any page of that book would be a rejoinder to that Minister of culture's words. 10 million people died for God's sake, and he stole everything from you!

Perhaps the only decision Mobutu ever took that proved to be in the interest of his country was to tear that statue down early on in his reign, even though this measure did coincide with his self-interest as was the overriding norm for him.

If Mobutu's reign was to be the farcical follow-up of the Leopold's tragedy, one had hoped that whatever followed would begin to restore that country to some sense of sanity. Instead, in the Kabila interludes (first the elder, and now the hereditary son), Congo remains the site of a second Scramble for Africa (see here also).

Congo is so rich in natural resources that even normally sober Texan oilmen or South African diamond monopolists hyperventilate when they talk about it. It has copper, gold, diamonds, tin - you name it. It has uranium (if you wanna go nuclear) and even that rare tantalite that's in your cell phone.

At one point in the past decade, it was said that the armies of 13 countries were on its soil, not to mention Russian mercenaries and the usual cast of malfeasants - Africa's World War it was called. The resultant human cost of the ongoing Congo troubles, 3 million and rising, is approaching Leopoldian dimensions. The notion that a government would make such gestures says everything about the dysfunction of the country and tone-deafness of the opportunists who pass for politicians there.

The next day however, it appeared that the outcry had grown too large and the statue was removed: Leopold reigns for a day in Kinshasa
Residents of Kinshasa could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

First, a statue of the late Belgian king Leopold II, whose rapacious colonial rule of Congo caused the death of millions of Africans, was reinstated in the heart of the Congolese capital.

Then, less than a day later, it was gone again, mysteriously removed by the same workmen who had erected it.

Officials were at a loss to explain the comings and goings at the end of June 30 Boulevard, the street named in honour of the date of Congo's independence from Belgium.

First indications from the government were that it might be part of a historical restoration. There are plans to erect a statue of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who stole billions from the country during a 30-year rule that ended in 1997.

"We are restoring the history of our country, because a people without history is a people without a soul," said Christophe Muzunge, the minister of culture. He added that the six-metre (20ft) Leopold statue had been brought back to remind the people of their country's colonial past, so that "it never happens again".

But later there was no comment on why Leopold had been removed. Certainly the sudden apparition was not popular with onlookers.

"Look at what they did in Iraq," Mputu Melo said. "They destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein. This shouldn't be in a public square."

King Leopold, who never set foot in the Congo, controlled the vast country as his personal colony from 1885 to 1908, when it was handed over to Belgian government rule.

During those decades his agents enslaved its people to harvest rubber, beating workers with a hippo-hide whip known as the chicotte and severing the hands of men, women and children who failed to meet their quotas.

As many as 10 million Congolese are estimated to have died as a result of executions, unfamiliar diseases and hunger.


While I am happy to see that this decision was reversed, do note the crucial line I emphasized above: there are plans for a Mobutu statue.

Pity the poor Congolese, first King Leopold's ghost returns to haunt them, now they're going to have to endure Mobutu again!

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Quiet Return

You might have noticed that there was no toli in January. Part of the reason was that I spent a month in Ghana over the holiday period. Far from computers, it was a month of rest, good food, and quality time with family and friends alike.

As I returned, refreshed and all, I was all set to write about the 13 novels I'd read, describe a week of the worst harmattan (the dry season of winds and dust clouds blowing down from the Sahara) I'd experienced since childhood, contrasting that with the bitter cold and snow storms that Boston has supplied, give my impressions of Ghana, describe the chaos of a presidential inauguration done with Ghanaian (in)efficiency. My head was full of ideas, I was going to comment on the various memes that have been floating around this internet thing of ours and talk about the series of articles on technology that I've been pondering. I was going to write about all that and more.

But then two weeks ago, I had a terrible, terrible phone call to Ghana that included the following:

"What?... Murdered... Armed robbers... Yes, murdered... at his house... 4 of them... his 19 year old niece, the watchman and the house girl..."

The rest was a blur of shock, anger, bewilderment, denial, wrath, sorrow, frustration, impotence, sadness, hand-wringing, and finally, numbness that has stumped me since.

A few days later I would read headlines in the online papers about what had happened. But nothing really can explain a wife returning home to such a scene, or the phone calls that some children, 3,000 miles away, were to receive. Nothing can explain the four lives lost and others thrown into upheaval and the sheer arbitrary waste of it all. In short, it has been a tsunami on a personal scale.

In any case, I hope you'll understand why there's been quiet in these parts...