Friday, November 11, 2005

Inflation Calypso

Mr Minister Playboy
You Better Seek To Cut All The Prices Down

(chorus x 2)
Prices Soaring Higher And Higher
I Guess That They Are Going To Reach The Moon

That's What I Call The Inflation Calypso

E.T. Mensah & The Tempos - Inflation Calypso

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that the US economy isn't in good shape, what with fiscal looting, cronyism, and the evident impact of high energy prices. E.T. Mensah, singing in the colonial Gold Coast 50 years ago, simply stated his observation in two sentences and let the lilting (and mournful) music speak for itself. A few years later, independence came and the Governor-General returned to England... A calypso is not quite the blues, and the current moment is not quite a recession, still I figured I'd add some verses to his song, a few observations from my lowly vantage point.

highlife music combo


Homeowners in northeast US have been told to expect spectacular increases in heating costs this winter - a doubling or tripling in some cases. Even those rustic types who use firewood instead of oil or natural gas have found that their costs have increased 60 to 70 percent (after all, you need diesel to transport several tonnes of wood blocks). As someone who rents and who lives in an apartment complex, I've typically been shielded from these costs. I learnt a dear lesson a while back and always check that heat and hot water are included in the rent. You can hardly escape it though when conversations with everyone around you degenerate into the shrinking pocketbook song.

There's inflation in these here lands...

I don't own a car, being a public transport afficionado, but even I am not immune to the chorus of petroleum despair. During my honeymoon roadtrip, I rented an SUV which turned out to not to be a particularly fuel-efficient specimen even for the genre. This was a replacement for the sedan I had reserved which on inspection was suffused with the overpowering odour of green chilis. The previous driver must have been transporting vegetables or something; the green chili is the symbol of New Mexico but that was taking it too far. But back to the subject, each time I had to fill the car up (and this was a shockingly frequent occurrence), I was appropriately shocked and awed at the dent that this was putting on my finances. Of course it's nothing like filling up in Europe but I was feeling the literal impact of Dubya's Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina in my wallet.

I'll skip over the heart attack that is the annual almost-doubling of health insurance costs. Health care in the US is what it is and all corporations are shifting the burden of insane costs to employees - if indeed they do provide health insurance. But one wonders how sustainable this is. This is the time of year when the next year's benefits package is rolled out in corporate America and it comes with a certain dread as befits the seasonal gremlins of Halloween. When people with dependants anecdotally speak of 450% increases over 3 years, that starts to resonate.

Still the most painful indicator of inflation was the discovery that the washer and dryer in the communal laundry room in the basement of my building now require 2 extra quarters. The price of dealing with one load of laundry has gone from $2.50 to $3. A 20% increase in price at a point when wages are essentially stagnant.

Now don't get me wrong, I make a decent living and don't have children so my belt-tightening should be relatively shallow. But the fact remains that
If You Run Out Of Quarters,
You Don't Get To Tumble-Dry.
With Wet Laundry On The Line,
You Can Sing The Inflation Calypso.

highlife musicians


Then they tell me that the price of stamps will increase next year... Blues or calypso? Bring on the chorus:
Prices Soaring Higher And Higher
I Guess That They Are Going To Reach The Moon

An inflationary soundtrack

  • E.T. Mensah & The Tempos - Inflation Calypso
    The early highlife bands such as E.T. Mensah's Tempos and King Bruce's Black Beats were all about celebrating the good times; the genre is called "high" life after all. But the griot tradition is deeply embedded in West African culture so you couldn't avoid some social commentary and canny dissent. The song is 2 and a 1/2 minutes of mournful saxophone and shifting drums. The lyrics are an economy of wit and the chorus is repeated almost tongue in cheek. Highlife music is said to come from the fusion of Caribbean and African rhythms with a jazz sensibility, thus it was always global in outlook. This is why you'll find many songs designated as calypsos. E.T. Mensah was keenly aware that if the good times ended, there would be little demand for his musical stylings hence here, he sounded the alarm.

    Sample the mp3 for a few days: E.T. Mensah & The Tempos - Inflation Calypso
  • Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges - Going Up
    From the Side by Side album, this is perhaps a little too festive given the topic. A small combo band swinging and 4 propulsive solos provide a musical feast. The flute that floats around the other instruments almost induces the Duke to effusiveness.
  • Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes - Wake Up Everybody
    The Philly Soul of the 70s was always socially conscious, if it wasn't Nixon or Vietnam it was that beast we called inflation. This is a wake up call for everyone sung with righteous indignation by one of the best voices in the cannon.

I would add Gwen Guthrie's Ain't Nothing Going On But the Rent but that I'll save that for a recessionary soundtrack.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Resilience and Adaptability

I continue to mull the question of what drives technology adoption and how that should inform system design. One aspect I've covered in the past is about comprehension and ease of authoring and, on reflection, I will eventually flesh out the paper I outlined: "The importance of syntax in technology adoption".

This note though is about some of the other factors that come into play as expressed in concepts like leverage, robustness, adaptability, transparency and the like. When it comes to implementations of a given technology, things like Postel's law apply and in the marketplace, economists also have a lot to say on the matter.

The following passages seem separated at birth although they refer to different technologies. First, David Reed discussing network protocols.

Read the original TCP papers and so forth. TCP was never "efficient" nor was it intended to be. It was intended to be interoperable. It was an overlay network. It still achieves those goals far better than an "efficient" protocol (especially since efficiency seems to come at a cost - specialization, brittle response outside a narrow set of operating points, etc.).

Resilience and adaptability is far more important than "efficiency". Far too many in the research community are focused on a narrow set of metrics, invented by academics, for academics, merely because they are quantitative... We need more researchers focused on how the cars fit into the human ecology of communications, in particular some ought to be thinking about inventing better metrics for things like adaptability and resilience, which are far more relevant systems properties. Can anyone tell me a defensible measure of adaptability that has been used to rank network performance in the real world?

Adam Bosworth, discussing the lessons learned from the adoption of the web over the past 15 years covers much the same ground.
1. Simple, relaxed, sloppily extensible text formats and protocols often work better than complex and efficient binary ones. Because there are no barriers to entry, these are ideal...

8. KISS. Keep it (the design) simple and stupid. Complex systems tend to fail. They are hard to tune. They tend not to scale as well...

As I’ve argued before, spreadsheets and SQL and PHP all succeeded precisely because they are simple and stupid — and forgiving.
There's lots to digest and this is a broad topic. The lesson seems to be about how to approach efficiency and the perils of premature optimization as opposed to interoperability (or at least the axis along which to optimize a system). This just shows the wide reach of the end-to-end principle. Still, on the matter of efficiency, the words used to describe these patterns are revelatory: "resilience" and "adaptability" on the one and a case of "sloppily extensible" and "forgiving" on the other.

Bosworth's use of the word sloppy often gets him into trouble in his advocacy because it is counter-intuitive. Mark Baker, who's keenly aware about marketing matters, augments it and makes the advocacy pitch by calling this Principled Sloppiness: "the principled application of must-ignore style extensibility".

This, it seems, is one of the underrated virtues of the web style. Biologists would label such system properties under the heady label of "evolvability" and bring Darwin into the mix and who can blame them. When you poke around the writings of those who helped design the web architecture and see the same word you know that there is something of value in this notion.

The question for a designer or architect is how to highlight these principles of system design when pitching bean counters (or even fellow technologists) who are often focused on a different narrative. How does one measure adaptability and resilience? And if one could, should the measure come into play in deciding when one should pick XML instead of ASN.1 to take an example trading off readability for binary efficiency (or for those concerned with DOM scripting, what are the tradeoffs between XML instead of JSON as formats for data interchange)?

I wonder how many nascent technologies get discarded before they can prove their worth simply because no one can articulate their worth on the resilience and adaptability axes. The paradox is that these properties of a system are often the most crucial when it comes to adoption. Oh well, software and network engineers haven't gone through their industrial revolution.

So there we have it, a brief stab at identifiying a few suspects in that murder mystery that is Rohit Khare's Who Killed Gopher?. We'll scrutinize the rest of the dinner guests in later notes.

A resilient soundrack for this joint



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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Kente, Lace and Champagne

Pondering a photo to (belatedly) complete the London's Got Soul Trilogy...

Kente Lace country chic

Photographers talk about seeing The Shot, knowing as they press the button that they have captured a great image. I'm not much of a photographer and have only come close to this once, 45 seconds before I took the above photo. As it turned out it took me that long to find my camera and I missed the shot I wanted when additional people walked into the scene. The occasion was a friend's wedding. Still I think it turned out fine and the sight compelled me to declaim some spontaneous poetry, or doggerel as my friends labelled it.

The first two lines were obvious

Rolling Hills Of Fair Essex
Stately Homes And Greener Pastures
rolling hills of fair Essex

As was the eventual final line
Kente, Lace And Champagne
In between there was what you would expect: musings on the wonder of Accra style and Jamestown posturing melded with East London street smarts. It appeared to me that all were trying to create high society. One can imagine everyone settling for high tea at Fortnum-and-Mason's what with the costumes and the hats on display. And yet these are all normally unprepossessing Londoners who hustle and bustle on crowded buses and the packed cars of the underground. But give them a happy occasion and a fine setting, and they'll be all Ascot top hats and (relatively) stiff upper lips.

When you mix lace style and kente chic with a London sensibility all that's missing is champagne.

And while on the topic of champagne and London, I came across this tidbit about the improbable ascendency of British wine in recent international competitions.
Champagne houses eye up English vineyards

From Kent's Isle of Thanel to the Sussex Downs, what began as a rumour, or a bruit as the French might say, may soon become a brut reality.

French champagne houses, impressed by the strong performances of English wines in international competitions, are looking to buy English vineyards.
The French, who have always looked askance at the culinary prowess of their now Channel Tunnel linked neighbours, of course were rather skeptical about this development. But they are nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to money hence they will scope out the competition.

The English reaction to this scrutiny is an interesting blend of stoicism and prickliness.
"Why should we help the French when we are already producing better champagne on our own?" he said. "We have exactly the same soil conditions and thanks to global warming the climate is actually better. The only difference is I'm not allowed to call our wines champagne."

"It's got to be better than growing cauliflower."

"At every English sporting event from Wimbledon to Ascot, we toast the victors with French champagne", he said. "We'll probably be toasting the anniversary of our victory at Trafalgar this summer with French brands too, it really gets my goat."
British wine?

Soundtrack for this note


Pet Shop Boys - West End Girls

A pop synthesizer tune by the boys of irony for the ultimate city of synthesis and soul, London.

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