Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow

A friend was hurting very publicly the other day. The reason was friends and, as she vented, she even started reciting the cautionary lyrics of Jody Watley and Rakim's song of the same name.

Have you ever been stabbed in the back
By someone you thought was really cool?
And its infectious chorus
Friends will let you down.
Friend won't be around.
When you need them most, where are your friends?
And so forth. At that display, I thought I'd fulfill her request and send her the song in question. Of course my computer was falling apart as usual thus my impulse was thwarted, although I did begin to compile a playlist to cheer her up. 12 hours later, the computer seemed to have temporarily recovered, and with the benefits of a night's sleep, I decided to go beyond the dozen tracks I came up with off the top of my head.

Thus I give you the expanded Friends Playlist, and with it I can inaugurate a new banner in the Things Fall Apart series namely: The Comfort Suite. Said suite of course started with Mind the Gap and Comfort Food and Rare Groove. The theme of the playlist should be obvious: a musical head nod to the ties that bind as things fall apart.

Friends: A Playlist


It is fitting that we start with Friends, the most enduring hit of Jody Watley's greatest solo effort, her 1989 album, Larger than Life. It has aged better than the other songs that reached the top of the charts because of its subject matter.

Jody Watley Larger Than Life


As she sings, "I'm talking about your friends", and she delves into the pitfalls of the subject with her customary aplomb, a terrain where envy and deception sometimes reign. And then right on cue, The R, Rakim Allah himself, at the peak of his influence, drops knowledge with a controlled verse of worldly wisdom. All you have to say is "Friends are hard to find" and any hip-hop head will complete the line for you "so be careful" and go on from there. This is the prototype of the hip-hop soul that now permeates the charts and it works better than almost all of them because it is so balanced. The then reigning Queen of Soul met with the Crown Prince of hip-hop and their child was royalty. Andre Cymone's production is straight out of the Minneapolis Sound and the result is the perfect soul, hip-hop and pop song. Serendipitously a lesson from Jody Watley was discussed just on Friday; something must be in the air about this song.

Earlier on in her career with Shalamar in which she teemed up with Howard Hewett, she also had a hit with a different version of Friends thus this a topic that motivates our Jody.

Whodini too have a nice anthemic and bouncy version of Friends which can still turn a dancefloor alive. Old School hip-hop developed out of house parties and park gatherings of friends thus their take on Friends emphasizes the bonding rituals that prevail.


We are both Ghanaians, and on a nationalist high at the moment, hence we can turn to some glorious highlife from the motherland. The centerpiece of the playlist comes courtesy of the Beach Scorpions wonderful Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow. At almost ten minutes, this song is the definition of sublime: the shifting and unhurried drums, the tongue-in-cheek chorus, the light and intricate guitar fills that float around. Every lyric is repeated twice since the tale is cautionary. Call and response is part of our traditions, and we firmly believe that there is joy in repetition as far as these life lessons go. (The mp3 can be downloaded here for a few days.)

Electric Highlife


Judge for yourself as the pidgin stylings and folk wisdom pour forth from the first line on
Don't disgrace me, what I do for you?
I do you good, but you can't remember

You know that, life is up and down
Wherever your are, wherever you are
oh my sister, oh yes. Oh my brother, oh yes

Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
Highlife musicians combo


The matter gets complicated and we enlist onlookers in this affair
Mr Frankie, listen to my matter
Oh Brother Frankie, this is my matter
The time I get my money, I used to go without
The time I get my money, I say, I tell em it be for them
They don't remember what I do for them sometime ago
Oh my sister, what I do for them oh yes.

Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
The case is well stated but then since Ghanaians wear their religion and politics on their sleeves, we get the invocation of the Golden Rule.
Love your neighbour as you love yourself
Wherever you are, wherever you are. Oh yes.
Oh my sister, wherever you are, oh yes.
Oh my brother, wherever you are, oh yes.
highlife musicians


Anthony Scorpion's plaintive voice meshes well with the mandolin and clarinet that punctuate the music. I defy you to keep from nodding your head or smiling to this laidback song and, well let me go for hyperbole, superb piece of liberation highlife.

The Beach Scorpions might well have been singing about Donald Rumsfeld. He too was so inconsistent when it came to Saddam, Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow is the theme song for the Axis of Hypocrisy. It's funny what a little Black Gold can do to these friendships of ours.

There is another reading of the song however, which is that Brother Scorpion was playing a Kweku Ananse ruse, and all this palava was a veiled appeal for money. The clue is in the line "They don't remember what I do for them sometime ago". "Sometime ago" is awfully imprecise and perhaps it is that he is basically broke and lazy and consequently trying to appeal to one's sense of shame (the word "enemies") and foggy memory ("they don't remember") in order to get some unearned cash. Well that's the paradox of friends today, enemies tomorrow.

The Beach Scorpions know all too well what Jealousy can cause and they sing to their wives
Jealousy will kill you, take your time,
Watch yourself. Oh my wife...
Look your face in the mirror
You'll see that you'll grow lean
Again there is considerable mischief in their singing. One wonders if the jealousy wasn't a little deserved as these guys run around town with the groupies that every musician typically garners.

Musically close to Jody's track is Rumors by Timex Social Club from the aptly titled Vicious Rumours album.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of Games as Chuckii Booker would have it, and he should know given that he was Turned Away earlier in his career. Mark Morrison interpolated that song with Return of the Mack and maybe Macks, and the games they play, are the root cause of our problems with friends.



Jonathan Butler chimes in with Lies
Wish I could have seen it in your eyes.
Lies. But I never did... realize.
As do the Thompson Twins if you prefer your lies served as New Wave pop.

Prince will oblige with Old Friends for Sale but you can always make new ones, at least that has been my experience. But if you do want to hang on to them, Prince's case is instructive and indeed he eventually reconciled with those who made him sing those heady words:
The sun set on my heart this evening
For someone who said they would die for me.
Donnie recently sang You've Got A Friend in The Colored Section which sounds reasonable enough.

I won't mention Dionne Warwick singing That's What Friends Are For since you presumably know that what you want out of friends often isn't what you get.

The Dramatics however claim that What You See Is What You Get, but that is dubious when one considers the vagaries of the human factor.

And how about Vesta Williams with the infectious Once Bitten, Twice Shy which was contemporaneous with Jody and Rakim's take.

Vesta


And for a good mix from the same era how about Robbie Nevil's wonderful slice of pop life: C'est la vie. The chorus:
C'est la vie
C'est la vie
That's just the way it goes
That's life
And while on that same theme, how about Earth Wind and Fire's That's The Way Of The World. I'm always happy after I listen to that one especially the live version. An anthem for the hard knock life that Oliver (by way of Dickens), Annie and Jay-Z know about. One really needs to hang in there under the circumstances.

As Ruby Turner sang in that neglected UK soul album produced by Womack and Womack, It's Gonna Be Alright. The Blacksmith remix was my friends' soundtrack back in 1989.

We must be mindful of what The O'Jays termed Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind Of People but your mileage may vary. This, of course, was part of their Back Stabbers album and the title track is often relevant in friendships.

Brenda Russell and her then husband sand a duet on Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me Of A Friend). Was that prescience about their later break up? Who knows, but you wonder sometimes whether life imitated art or if it was the reverse. She also later followed up the pragmatic soul anthem In the Thick of It and the message was "better get a grip and get it on".

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes pose the question as follows: Where Are All My Friends?

Fried provide the answer with Friends in Lo Places. Those who know, know Fried. Jonte Short is down low, and with that unique voice of hers, gives us a soulful notion of Portishead by way of Memphis and the Fine Young Cannibals. Her voice is languid and bluesy; the song is great, what else can I say.

Fried


Gary Numan asks Are Friends Electric. He is our greatest electro-pop auteur.

Cheryl Lynn notes that it's Got to be Real (although that more properly belongs in a love playlist if you want to be a pedant about these things).

Donny Hathaway reprises The Beatles' Jealous Guy and gives it soul flavour, the music that is, not the jealousy which is the eternal temptation ever since Cain.

Colonel Abrams lets bygones be bygones but rues How Soon We Forget. He also had that dancefloor groove of Trapped but that is not quite appropriate here.

You Remind Me courtesy of Patrice Rushen is wistful and has been sampled to death. It's no wonder Prince was in love with her although she was the one who got away. And what a voice, her appeal is Straight From the Heart

Emeline Michele - Bastille Day


Count Basie's Orchestra was all about Dinner With Friends in those late night jook joints that were the essence of swing.

Charlie Parker insists with typical lyricism that Just Friends should be invited to said dinner. Bird was a sensitive soul who couldn't suffer fools. Unfortunately when it came to his addictions he didn't follow his advice.

Abstrac's I'll Be Your Friend features Bernard Bell and is full of reassurance.

The Winans sing about A Friend, a simple gospel tune from a band of brothers produced by Teddy Riley with his customary keyboard work. "There is a friend that sticks closer than every brother". The Quakers, that original Society of Friends, would no doubt nod their heads to that message.

Donny Hathaway returns with We're Still Friends through the ups and downs.

Eddie Kendricks gets more precise on the nature of the friendship with a song called Intimate Friends. Those are the best ones, the ones that go beneath the surface.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong playfully debate gentle letdowns in Can't We Be Friends. They resolve things amicably, well who can deny Satchmo?

Simply Red have a partial answer to that question namely sometimes Money's Too Tight to Mention
Oh money, money, money
Truer words have never been sang.
We're talking about Reaganomics...

We're talking about money, money
Yeah, money, money. Oh money, money.

We're talking about the dollar bill
And an old man that's over the hill
Now what are we supposed to do?
This is my favourite song from Mick and the boys, and the album cover shows him as an Oliver Twist in the making since trickle-down and supply-side mantras leave much to be desired in the world commons. Nay they lead to the poorhouse, or is it Bleak House, Hard Times and worse? The song, and Dickens, remain very relevant today it is sad to say. Heck it's enough to make Warren Buffett Turn Against God.

Simply Red Picture Book


Full Force with Friends B-4 Lovers are typographically innovative and put friendship B-4 sex which is a sound strategy for lasting relationships (and safe sex).

Gladys Knight and The Pips invite us to get on board the Friendship Train. On the other hand they also sang about catching that Midnight Train to Georgia and that was their more enduring musical legacy. Hmmm.

Again going back to Ghana, we turn to Guyoyo whose electric highlife inveighs against Osikuni Atamfo (Gossiper Enemies)

Annie Lennox of Eurythmics posited that There Must Be An Angel playing with her heart and who can blame her. One hopes it wasn't her compere, Dave Stewart. The heavenly chorus: "Must be talking to an angel".

kuumba 35th year reunion


She should have listened to Jonathan Butler's Melodie, a soothing instrumental guaranteed to ensure soul survival.

Those southern knights known as The Crusaders, erstwhile of Street Life fame, want us to "Keep on, Keep that Same Old Feeling". Those good old days of pure friendships and southern comfort...

Best Of Friends by Lenny White is a classic bit of jazz-funk, a celebration of those that enrich our lives.

Biz Markie's Just a Friend is about betrayal sang in an off-key voice
Baby you
Got what I need
And you you say he's just a friend
And you you say he's just a friend
Jonathan Butler is quite the flirt with More Than Friends, the title track of his 1988 album which saw him continue with the themes of lies. The album features the then-ascendant Teddy Riley to liven things up a little.

More than friends


Surface cut to the chase, they want to be Closer Than Friends. I've always thought it was just a seductive come-on and the song certainly sounds that way, but perhaps they are just echoing the words of The Godfather, Michael Corleone that is, namely
Keep your friends close but your enemies closer
Michael Jackson is Just Good Friends with Stevie Wonder. There were hysterical concerns about the nature of some of MJ's later friendships but really they are pure ones, even judicially certified. Judgment matters when it comes to friends you need to figure out who's bad.

Musiq Soulchild is more concise with Just Friends (Sunny). An optimistic song about yearning and wanting to hang out without hidden agendas. If only it was always so.

S.O.S. Band deliver the message of the hour with the exuberant Just Be Good to Me. The full flowering of Jam & Lewis's take on the Minneapolis Sound was in the irresistible grooves they wrote for the S.O.S. Band and they never looked back. We all need the occasional SOS Band.

S.O.S Band


Chubb Rock provides some sound advice in Treat Em' Right. As the saying goes:
The Fat Lady sang
I crushed her
Word up The Chubbster
Father MC retorts that you should Treat Them Like They Want To Be Treated to the sounds of Jodeci's chorus. He's upset about those who act all warm and cuddly only to play around with his mind when his guard is down. It is only later that he adds "you should treat them right" and it is almost an afterthought.

Prince wants to be friends and not just your boyfriend. I remember the LoveSexy tour in 1988/89, when he would sing If I Was Your Girlfriend and bring the house down with its minimalist Linn drums and Camille voice. And there was that bed on the stage business to add to the sexual confusion.

Me'Shell NdegéOcello takes no prisoners and even delivers some playground taunts
If that's your boyfriend
If that's your boyfriend
Then he wasn't last night.
That's a bit harsh but such is the life of Plantation Lullabies; this is the school of hard knocks that we are talking about. It's enough to Make You Wanna Holler as she sang in the Peace Beyond Passion album not coincidentally released on the Maverick label.

MeShell NdegeOcello Peace Beyond Passion


Jaguar Wright goes Woman to Woman and has a chat with someone who happens to be sharing her man. Some friendships are born of dysfunction and co-dependency but we are nothing if not social beasts.

Pebbles in Girlfriend takes up the time-honoured task of the concerned friend who witnesses a break up and mixes harsh truths
Girlfriend
How could you let him treat you so bad?
Uh oh.
with the kind words that befit a good pep-talk
You know you were the best he ever had. Oh oh
She even gets all existentialist quoting The Bard, Shakespeare that is, by way of Hamlet
To be or not to be. That is the question.
She adds the urban analysis
It just takes a street degree.
And then comes the chicken grease of the song:
You cried your last cry
I've lied my last lie.
I'm out the door, Babe
There's other fish in the sea.
If only I could count the number of times my female friends have sang those words to my face, and with a quite vicious intent in their face and voice. L.A. and Babyface broke through commercially with their production on this song and never looked back since. Incidentally if memory serves me right, Pebbles's words of wisdom got her married to L.A. Reid.

Pebbles


Ronnie Laws gives us Friends and Strangers, soothing jazz funk for two-faced operators. "Doublé" as I used to say in secondary school. If you care, the remix by Madlib is infused with some fiercesome drums.

On the pure jazz front we can turn to Sonny Rollins's version of Just Friends. When Rollins plays for Bird you know its all about friends

Rollins plays for Bird


Tina Turner boldly states that What You Get Is What You See and, well, Ike Turner didn't hold anything back in their relationship. He was like Jody Watley, larger than life.

Samuelle's So You Like What You See is the missing link of the New Jack Swing movement and is graced by one of Teddy Riley's best songs. "You better get with the program". Incidentally this album was available for 6 cents on Amazon. I bought another copy to send to a friend. Really there's one great song there, it's worth your time.

We then turn to War's Why Can't We Be Friends and this gets us into matter of politics; maybe those neocon rogues could listen to this tune. It's not a zero-sum game, and the prisoner's dilemma will only put us on The Road to Guantanamo Bay.

Amel Larrieux sang Get Up a few years ago to motivate her friends about the Infinite Possibilities in the world. By the way some friendly advice from your lowly DJ, her new album is the truth, run to your record store or iTunes as appropriate.

Jonathan Butler pleads Take Me Home, another instrumental track from More than Friends. He was sorely missing his friends in South Africa living all those years in the US as he did. People like to forget apartheid and downplay its human costs but they are still with us, and this song provides musical evidence. The most talented musicians were forced into exile and, even if some landed well like Butler did, it is worth remembering all those friendships that had to be put on hold for P.W. Botha, De Klerk and those other rogues.

Isaac Hayes Shaft


Isaac Hayes, Black Moses himself, preaches about A Friend's Place and one hopes friends don't get the Shaft.

Tweet sings Best Friend with Bilal who reciprocates with Soul Sista. Bilal too turned in an unreleased version of Prince's How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore? which is far better than Alicia Keys' take. Of course Bilal is the greatest jazz singer to play the soul scene. As Marc Anthony Neal put it in Songs in the Key of Black Life, Bilal quite literally pimps the microphone.

Bilal 1st Born Second


Kirk Franklin on the other hand received A Letter From My Friend a graceful gospel ballad. He certainly knows how to put a choir to good use.

Vesta Williams' Congratulations is about that quite common emotion termed Schadenfreude. The occasion is her being informed of a friend's impending marriage, it's about the one who got away. Thus she wails
Congratula-a-a-a-a-a-a-tions
I thought it would be me
Standing next to you
And so forth. She also has that Relationships album for a full length treatment of such matters.

Cameo contribute one of their rare ballads to this soundrack: Friend To Me. The interplay between the voice and the horns make this delicate song a great testimonial. Sometimes however, they get pointed and will come back with You're Talking Out The Side Of Your Neck on the She's Strange album.

Eddie Kendricks explains that He's A Friend Of Mine, Eddie is one of those Temptations who Keeps on Truckin'.

The Hollies make it a matter of family with He Ain't Heavy (He's my Brother) and again we turn to Donny Hathaway's version which is full of the pathos the song deserves.

Donny Hathaway Live


Donny Hathaway also contributes You've Got A Friend which he reprised in his duet album with Roberta Flack.

In the same vein we can turn to Rodgers and Hammerstein's You'll Never Walk Alone from Carousel, a song beloved by Liverpool football fans all over (speaking as one). It builds the tribal connection quite effectively. Nina Simone's instrumental version is poignant and reflective on Little Girl Blue, her big coming out party whose fortieth anniversary is right around the corner.

Nina Simone Little Girl Blue


Incognito, the acid jazz pioneers, intone that you're Still A Friend Of Mine and more will be forthcoming on said group and genre.

Van Hunt recognizes Suspicion (She Knows Me Too Well). You can't hide certain things from good friends even if you try. There's also the bit about being Down Here in Hell (With You).

Les Nubians and Morgan Heritage mix France, Congo, Jamaica, French and English and ask Brothers and Sisters to "give thanks a praise to the Almighty".

Zap Mama get to Yellin' Away with Talib Kweli and Common in the camaraderie of Ancestry in Progress.

I've previously discussed Cherrelle singing My Friend in the context of her affair with Randy Ran and friendships are things that endure at Home.

And apropos affairs, Sade claims that she's not one to Turn My Back On You.

To raise the feelgood quotient, I suppose we can include Bill Withers' Lean on Me. Perhaps though we should try the funky version of that song done by Club Nouveau, the revamped Timex Social Club in that album about Life, Love & Pain you can't go wrong with that song. The boys also had a hit with Jealousy and perhaps that is part of what is up in these cases.

Life Love and Pain


Zhané know that it's all about the party and the need to unwind.
I am ready to call my friends
So we can all get down
With the party
Hey Hey, Mr DJ
Hey Mr DJ
You can get this started
If I'm asked this nicely, I try to deliver. Renée Neufville continued her collaboration (and presumably friendship) with Roy Hargrove and gave us "Drop it On the One"

Zhane


Aretha Franklin is a preacher's daughter and goes back to the source in What A Friend We Have In Jesus, a song performed with such Amazing Grace.

Earth, Wind & Fire are soulful prophets and say that you should Keep Your Head To The Sky. The live version of course is coupled with Devotion and that's what we seek of our best friends.

De La Soul enlist the Native Tongues with Buddy. The remix takes Tanaa Gardner's Heartbeat and turns it into a collective exercise in celebrating friendships. It features the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love and Queen Latifah and embodies the best of hip-hop.

The end of this playlist will be Friends To The End by Wreckx-N-Effect. Featuring the Redhead Kingpin (of Do the Right Thing fame), this is the best that those Soul Men released. On an album that introduced the New Jack Swing, and foreshadowed Rump Shakers and such, this was the standout track. A posse cut is all about friendship and they oblige with verbal dexterity, wit and that ineffable feeling we call kinship. The first line states the thesis: "We've had the peanut butter now it's time for the jelly". We've gone from Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow to Friends to the End.

I'm sure you have your own favourite songs about friends and I'm sure the suggestions will be forthcoming and they are welcomed. I called it quits at around 100 songs. In any case, it will be a while longer before I can add to this list: the computer gave up the ghost right after I burned the cd (and possibly for good). As they say things fall apart. Still I hope I managed to give some comfort in this suite.

Hang in there Bubu. The cd is in the mail.

Balla Tounkara


P.S. I'll happily burn some more cds when I get the new computer.

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ghana vrs USA

Before


This happened to be on my living room table a few days ago. I'll reserve comment until after the Ghana USA match.

Ghana vrs USA


Our national anthem is playing. No more blogging...

Later


There is probably a parable to be made about a stick figure made out of spark plugs and improvised bent wire pointing a bow and arrow standing on top of Uncle Sam (a faceless Sam at that albeit with slick production values and glossy magazine accoutrements) but that would be reading far too much into an image...

[Ghana beat the USA 2-1]

Also, in case this was missed in the preceding posts, this was my mother's toli on the previous matches (To The Shout Of "Ghana", You Respond "Respect" and Firmly On The Map). She's heading our eight person family delegation to the World Cup.

The African Nation and The American Dream


I was going to save this photo for a piece I've been working on about immigrants and the diaspora but it seems strangely appropriate here. You can blame this juxtaposition on the journalistic impulse.

The American Dream!

The American Dream!
"You've got big dreams, we've got the big money!"
The exclamation point is of typographical importance. This is an advert for a mortgage company on the back page of the March 2006 issue of The African Nation, a free monthly newspaper for immigrants in the US that is often found wherever there's an "ethnic" grocery shop. Published mostly by Nigerians and Camerounians in Silver Spring, Maryland, it features the typical optimism and entrepreneurial spirit of the most vigourous of our West African brethren. The newspaper is billed as
"A success guide for Smart African-Americans, West Indians & Africans in the diaspora".
In short, it's an all-inclusive and expansive production. I will return later to dispense a critique of some of the paper's content (the articles on Nollywood, Green Cards, Obasanjo, corruption, Sudan, Frantz Fanon, the latest society weddings in DC, the latest immigration news, advertisements for lawyers, disquisitions on where we can get authentic comfort food, travel agencies that claim to find the cheapest rate for you to head home etc.). It is worthy of some focused commentary.

The Color of Memory


I first watched the World Cup in 1978 during a trip my mum and I made to Senegal to visit some family friends. It was my first trip outside Ghana and my first time on a plane. My only memories are of the color red in the marketplaces, a vivid red that I haven't seen since, the shimmering cloths the Senegalese wore (they pay attention to their looks to an extent that puts most Ghanaians to shame), the excitement about the Dutch team who played the most beautiful game, and the disappointment at their fate at the hands of Argentina. We watched all the matches on black and white TVs except for the final, and therein lies my other memory: the orange of the Dutch team and their fans. I'm still gutted about that match.

I have been waiting ever since for my team to be at the World Cup. This is something deep inside of me.

And it has been a long wait. Watching my favourite teams disappoint time and again: the Brazilians in 82 (Zico and Socrates slain by a baby-faced assassin named Paolo Rossi), Platini, Tigana and co in 82 and 86 (there was that perfidious Schumacher guy), Hoddle, Waddle, John Barnes and the like (the Hand of God) (and wherefore Gazza and Shearer?), Roger Milla and Cameroon, Gullit and Rijkaard, Nigeria causing ulcers and palpitations to everyone, Senegal exhilarating the last time around... The teams that Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah led in the 1990s were arguably more talented than our current heroes but they proved incapable of qualifying for the world cup. Thus we had only the memories of Polo and Razak, the legendary Black Stars of the past, glorious in the African Cup of Nations or, of late, our success at the junior level or at the Olympics.

It is a good day to be a Ghanaian, but it has been a long wait.

Identity and Allegiance


I recently calculated that I have now spent more time in Cambridge than anywhere else, what with the university years and the Lotus/IBM years. This beats my stints in Ghana, France or England. Thus I am quite the conflicted soul about who to support and am typically mid-Atlantic in my sensibilities. The Brits have the "cricket match test' to sort out the "good" immigrants from the chaff and I wonder where I lie and whether I'll pass. This is a very difficult test when it comes to football, and especially the World Cup, because any fan of the game (and I am a great football fan) will find some tribal aspect to latch onto in every team.

Until their last match, I thought Ecuador were the best team from Latin America; they were my pick for the tournament since they seemed more "ready" than Brazil or Argentina. They still might come through and I hope they do. Of course I've rooted for all the African teams and, even if the Ivoriens are out of the tournament with the label of the best team not to progress, I can still find favour in those who beat them. I apparently have Dutch ancestry and the good Captain John Vanderpuje (or Vanderpoy as we pronounce it in Ghana) was surely smiling as that free kick rocketed into the Ivorien net and also at the way Arjen Robben played in Holland's demolition of Serbia and Montenegro. When I mentioned my Dutch connection to a friend yesterday, he noted that my allegiance would likely depend on my family history. My reply was that in the mist of the centuries that have passed, it is unclear whether said ancestor was a benign adventurer or a rapacious colonist. Identity is identity and many tribes can claim me. I, in turn, claim all those tribes through victory and defeat.

victorydefeat


Note well the use of the deflating passive tense in the headlines that followed in the US, it isn't David beats Goliath, or even Ghana Through... Brazil next, it's rather US eliminated by Ghana. The frame is typical of the big media companies and their prevailing script: the US were the actors, the Ghanaians were the sideshow. This of course would be news to anyone who watched the match, but such is the Great Game of life. How does the song go again?
They're all political actors... 'Don't worry'. He says 'Don't worry.'
The only team that leaves me cold in the tournament is Switzerland. I can't figure out the reason for this since they are just as talented as any of the other teams and play fluent European-style football. Whither neutrality? I was hoping Togo would beat them yesterday if only because of the amount of money Eyadema père had stashed in those well-run banks. But it wasn't to be, and such is life. Hopefully Eyadema fils will repatriate some of that loot to Togo. There is a startling statistic about the number of public schools constructed in Togo since independence (less than five in almost 50 years, if my memory serves me right). That is worth pondering at the same time as matters of elation are considered. But that's also for later toli... In any case South Korea might oblige tomorrow and deal with the Swiss tribe.

Hearts of Oak


The Wife called the following photo "working from home" for some reason. I was a little surprised. I didn't pretend to be working for those two glorious hours, and Big Blue couldn't have made me work at such a time. In reality there was no dilemma, there was only ecstasy.

working from home


I had dug up my Accra Hearts of Oak shirts since the World Cup is all about tribes and belonging. A good friend was good-natured enough to wear one even though his allegiances were more in line with Uncle Sam. There is no tribe more loyal than the "Phobians", the Hearts of Oak fans. Really. Truly. We dig deep. You Red Sox or Arsenal fans have nothing on us.

Ghana leading the usa world cup


There's nothing like a football match to bring out the drama of life, and we see shattered dreams for some, and bite-sized triumphs for others. Michael Essien's second yellow card is the most painful thing he will endure in his life as he'll miss the choicest game we'll face, and it tempers the Ghanaian jubilation somewhat. My American friends might be hurting right now, but rather than devolving into recriminations (as it appeared would be the case judging by the later coverage on ESPN), this Phobian will suggest instead a transfer of allegiance to the Black Stars. I've been told that the latest hiplife rhyme back home is
Black Stars checked the Czechs and cleared the bush.
We play to a different drumbeat and with our own musicality. I'll conclude with the Hearts of Oak motto
Never say die until the bones are rotten.
Next step Brazil.

Ghana goes wild with joy


I nominate this note for the Things Fall Apart series, under the banner of Social Living.

Next: Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow

See also: On IBM and Africa

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Low End Theory of Networks

Ethan Zuckerman has been pondering generativity and aggregation, prompted by Jonathan Zittrain's paper, The Generative Internet and its implications. Many of these themes have been stewing in my head for quite some time so I thought I'd finally join in the conversation with some of my armchair punditry. As seems to be my custom, a one paragraph comment somehow turned into this note. Sadly I don't quite have a toli code to contribute to the fun, and I've already narrated a couple of gospels recently. Thus I'll switch tack and change the frame. This time I give you a theory: the Low End Theory.

Control versus Participation in Networks


It's interesting that the lawyers, from Lawrence Lessig on, are weighing in on these network things and it's about time... Generativity huh? Zittrain argues a legal case built on abundant economic evidence (and one hopes the linguists would also weigh in). It's a nice restatement of the End-to-End principle in terms palatable to lobbyists. And the argument is much like Lawrence Solum and Minn Chung's paper The Layers Principle: Internet Architecture and the Law from a few years ago.

Reed, Saltzer and Clark described the End-to-End principle quite simply in terms of systems design. The heart of the matter is this oft-overlooked sentence
Functions placed at low levels of a system may be redundant or of little value when compared with the cost of providing them at that low level.
They knew when they were writing that this notion had wider applicability than the telecommunication networks that were their initial focus hence they labeled their work "end-to-end arguments in system design". The costs that are borne by the "system" are a generativity tax if we use Zittrain's terminology.

In economic terms, if you read the system as a market, restating this principle turns it into a matter of preserving options value. Black and Scholes have a lot to say on this front.

I see this same notion everywhere in the software engineering that I practice. The most successful system in distributed computing has been the web which, by design (pdf) and to a fault, falls back on minimalist protocols and data formats to handle coordination costs and the human factor.

But there are also tensions at work in the design of any system, and hidden assumptions or vested interests at work.

There will always be a difference between the value of a system to its users and its value to its operators and this is perfectly expressed in networks. At issue in this discussion is who gets to see their utility maximized. As Martin Geddes puts it
If there’s one lesson of the Stupid Network, it’s that there’s a massive increase in consumer surplus. The value to users diverges from that to owners. You can’t measure user value by looking at industry revenue.
A priori you have no idea what options are possible at the edge of your market. This means that the design of the core of your system is a political decision. Like an options trader you are gambling on outcomes in the marketplace and attempting to manage risk. Your design decision is anything but neutral despite what the so-called "network neutrality" proponents say (even if I do agree with their endpoint market outcome).

We know that price discrimination is an optimal pricing strategy from many standpoints and, in market utility terms, it makes sense to optimize system design to enable some modicum of price discrimination. The evidence throughout history, however, is that participants in a market hate price discrimination and favour uniform or predictable pricing. For example, flat rate pricing made the fortunes of AOL, and block pricing is remaking the cell-phone industry. By analogy, Paris Metro pricing is not widespread in transportation systems and on the internet because of these explicit user preferences.

Part of the challenges the US airline companies currently face is that we aren't sympathetic to them. One major reason for our disdain is the pricing games that are played with plane tickets. We value fairness even though we are creatures of a rough jungle and there's likely an anthropological basis for our sense of indignation at price discrimination. Perhaps our past ancestors were optimistic planners by nature. However the presence of price discrimination in a market, coupled with flexibility of pricing, and the liquidity of relative transparency allows for the existence of middlemen and the possibility of arbitrage and disintermediation. On the whole, these are good market outcomes but, like many "options", they can't be characterized up front.

Where there are networks, we will find power laws that apply. Similarly where there are markets, we will have sharp elbows and monopolistic temptations as we scramble for the loot. There are echoes of F. Scott-Fitzgerald's notion that "the rich are very different from you and me". These factors are found in every part of the technology industry and, when combined, they play out in the Great Game of consolidation and lobbying. The big network operators will happily oblige in their strategies since lots of advantages accrue to the early movers and great powers, and they can leverage consumer inertia. In the internet we have many intermediaries at the network level; firewalls, middleboxes and the domain name system are potential, and actual, Great Powers (see the Verisign Tax ® we all pay and the "offers you can't refuse" that content delivery networks like Akamai make).

Moving up a level, intermediaries are acknowledged up front in the web architecture as design constraints. I have cast the web's embrace of visibility to intermediaries as Caesar's Tax Collector Principle and I think it is fitting, taxes are good, on the whole, and especially estate taxes - they keep the trains running and the streets clean at least in my neck of the woods.

The Rumsfeld Taxonomy of Networks


If we take Donald Rumsfeld's taxonomy of knowledge as the starting point for our analysis of networks, we find the following.

Unknown Unknowns


Legislators and vested interests tend to worry about "unknown unknowns" and, like Rumsfeld, will focus on threat models and such. This is a matter of governance and regulation; among the core competencies of most governments are the management of information and regulation. Excessive focus on these leads almost inevitably to data mining, intimidation, the co-option of a complaisant although ostensibly independent press, spying by the NSA , movie-plot security and the like, your basic Global Wars on Everyone.

Unknown Knowns


The "unknown knowns" are our unconscious biases that frame of the discussion of networks. The metaphors that different sides use are instructive and perhaps even my casting the conversation in terms of "sides" betrays my viewing this arena as a game of sorts (hopefully not Mortal Kombat or something). Others may view the networks scene as a Clash of Civilizations which would lead to apocalyptic wars and the End of History if one follows Manifest Destiny.

Known Knowns


The "known knowns" in networks have been visibly demonstrated in the economic verve and activity that is taking place on the internet. Even if the four horsemen of the internet ™ were oversold, we can still point to the ongoing transformation wrought by the Four Horsemen of the Web. As an engineer, I tend to think in terms of protocol, hence my nomination of The HUHXtable Quartet (HTTP, URI, HTML, XML) towards that designation. Your mileage may vary and various prognosticators seem to be weighing in with speculations about the identity of these horsemen. With corporations being legal humans, they have assembled an intriguing cast of characters to liven up the debate.

These same historical forces were at work in the history of communication and transportation networks (pdf) and, although we celebrate the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford, who is really celebrating Samuel Homfray, Richard Trevithick, and the various others who played a role in the history of railroads or even, more recently, the extraordinary innovation brought about by the lowly shipping container?

Known Unknowns


The sweet spots in our analysis are the "known unknowns". These are the things that make venture capitalists salivate, and monopolists turn to paranoia and worse. It's that seductive notion of the startup in the garage that can change the world, of the eBay or Craigslist economy, of the manufactured serendipity and furious and creative energy that has been on display in the past decade or so on the web. This is where that Long Tail notion comes into play, to shamelessly mine another meme. There is the sense that all you need is an idea, and good connections. The fully leveraged network can be a great leveler and promoter of the innovative forces in a system.

Sidenote: This bit about manufacturing serendipity on the road to riches meshes well with the American Dream ™ and it is worth commenting on a little. Paul Graham, in his hermetically-sealed world, apparently believes that a start-up culture is a particularism of the United States (or condensation as he puts it). What a peculiar notion. While he's sleeping soundly at night, after a lullaby of unshakable Manifest Destiny, I'm sure that some Teutonic engineering will suddenly emerge (and he misreads the German economy so completely that he's a front runner for the huhudious awards 2006), or would it be an easterly wind that blows in from Korea or thereabouts that will give him fits early in the morning. I would have thought that the lesson was that the unknowns by definition are unknowable and, if you go ahead, following the Rumsfeld example, and discount even the knowns, you end up traveling in a lightly-armored Humvee on the road from Baghdad airport with a convoy of outsourced mercenaries. Good luck on that front.

The Low End Theory of Networks


But back to my topic... I'll quote Martin Geddes again since he is, as ever, eminently quotable
the end-to-end principle is really an appeal to preserve option value in a world of rapid technology change and innovation. By resisting this force, you’re either betting you can suppress rival distribution channels for competing innovation, or you can yourself be a lead innovator.
Thus Zittrain's pitch about generativity versus responsibility boils down to a tension between architectures of control and architectures of participation (using a much broader sense of participation than the current buzzword).

Stated another way, and since I traffic in coinages, indulge me if you will with Koranteng's first postulate of networks:
The End-to-End Principle in networks is another incarnation of the Low End Theory.
Recall if you will the core tenets of the Low End Theory which follows the Rule of Four as any good code should. Such is the mantra that schoolgirls the world over are reciting as they study Technology Adoption and System Design 101, and it is worth dwelling on:
  • Ruthlessly leverage disruptions in the system
  • Lower coordination costs through layer stripping
  • Favour participation over control
  • Temper the human factor to encourage adoption
As should be clear, each tenet of the Low End Theory encourages externalities to accrue in the system in support of preserving options value. Combined, they harness the collective energies of participants and harness innovation. We see these building blocks at work in hardware, in distributed computing and in the various Great Games that are taking place in the technology world. In this respect, I've suggested previously that REST, the web style, was the Low End Theory of Distributed Computing and have also written about The Low End Theory in Hardware. I don't see any reason why networks shouldn't be able to join in the fun, hence my current synthesis.

I like that Ethan is shrewdly focusing on the question of aggregation - that is also a restatement of the examples of eBay and Amazon. A good marketplace will surely allow for middlemen and aggregators, that's the bit about favouring participation. Aggregation however is only one of the styles that are likely to prevail in the market. Astute participants can focus on different areas and make hay.

As an example, it pays to identify the disruptions that underlie the evolution of the system, if you can hitch a ride at the right point, you can build mansions in Redmond. As to the second plank of our game theory, layer stripping restates the end-to-end notion of overlay systems, intelligence at the ends, and the daily reality of leaky abstractions. Similarly the human factor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is the incoherence of the Tower of Babel which is the bit about coordination costs. On the other hand there are network effects to be gained in communication and group forming that argue for emphasizing community features in the system. From hunter-gatherers on, anything that enabled collaboration has given selective advantages in our evolutionary systems. We want to encourage the sharing of knowledge and information but encounter considerable costs in doing so. The ongoing dilemma we face is about how to build systems recognize the people along with the processes.

Operational efficiency is something that companies like Wal-Mart and Dell are good at, and operational efficiency at the margins is all the rage in the staid banking sector. As Willie Sutton quipped about robbing banks, it's "Cause that’s where the money is". Thus there are other ways to prevail in this marketplace. Rather than optimizing your processes around innovation you can optimize around operations, billing, search, storage, creating markets, or lubricating whatever friction there is in the system. To take an obvious example, the economics of peering is an interesting problem to tackle. Briefly stated it's Animal Farm all over again: some peers are more equal than others. Or call it real estate: location, location, location.

Similarly we are only beginning to realize the social implications of mobility in networks, of intermittent connectivity, of periodic synchronization and of the fluidity of our communal relations. Mobility is thus another of the major disruptions at work in the network marketplace and one that many users have voted on with cold cash all over the world. I'll note anecdotally that many colleagues of mine who were working on desktop collaboration software just years ago are now firmly ensconced at Nokia.

Where there is the realm of the social, there is the realm of conversation and its corollary, the market. To raise the tenor of this conversation, I'll repeat the insight of those 20th century philosophers, the Pet Shop Boys, and their master treatise:
There's lots of opportunities

You've got the brawn
I've got the brains
Let's make lot of money
Thus there is room in the network game for the innovation of Juniper and Skype and all the companies weighing in on the disruption of the internet protocols, and the operational effectiveness of say equipment manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung, and the more astute network operators. Everyone has their own exemplars on this last front: phone, cable, cell, fiber, copper, fixed wireless, wi-fi, ethernet... The TCP/IP suite that is the core of the internet has succeeded and scaled because the abstractions used embraced transparency and existing systems. The incredible ascendancy of ethernet over three decades (and of late wi-fi) is a testament to the value of simplicity and uniformity in network system design, and the concomitant scale and leverage that the low end mass market provides. Like the personal computer, these technologies are canonical disruptions and those who embrace their Fung Wah Bus aesthetic are inexorably moving up-market.

Some have suggested that good starting points for determining strategy are tomes like The Gorilla Game or The Innovator's Dilemma, I believe the jury is still out and the MBA types are best positioned to expound on their merit. I would point to Jim Gray's Distributed Computing Economics as my favourite starting point in determining to the best strategy. In any case, the game is on. In the interim, we are simply picking and choosing which of the hard problems we want to address. Still game theory remains theory; in real life games we have that nagging human factor.

Engineers are currently hobbled in our advocacy of the internet because we don't have good instruments for determining metrics for things like resilience and adaptability that could inform the decisions of policy makers, lawyers, economists, and those who really matter: Mr. and Mrs. Big Money. Politicians everywhere like statistics and large numbers in what passes for their policy debates, especially in this current silly season of nostalgia. We do have large numbers in the internet, the users, but unfortunately we only have waffly options pricing to throw around as statistics. I would hazard that muttering "options value pricing for networks" doesn't quite cut it when compared to the red meat of the corn and sugar lobbies or the pork of the military industrial complex.

Sonny Rollins Way Out West


One needs to dangle some glitter when we talk to congressmen, or votes or something. Thus I'm an alchemist searching for Black Gold. They told me it was a goldfield; it turns out that it's an abandoned coal mine in Pennsylvania, a dud concession. Still I've heard there are good things Out West on the frontier, that area called the internet, that web style I need to adopt. Thus the Low End Theory is a work in progress and one could easily get taken to the cleaners by the loaded dice of the other players.

Deadwood


Everybody wants their cut and, if you can tilt the playing field at whatever level you reside at in the network ecosystem, it makes sense to do so, especially if you are judged every quarter by the baying hounds of Wall Street. If you take the market view, the lobbying capabilities of large corporations, a long history of regulation in this sector, and governments' existential need to pass laws or exercise control or compliance of some sort (whether in the name of security, expedience or getting things done) are going to weigh heavily.

We engineers have been lucky to have built enough of the internet and web infrastructure before the lawyers, lobbyists and governments realized what was there. The underlying architecture has proven sound enough to have scaled several orders of magnitude and looks set for several more as the next few billions of humanity come on board. The fact that the internet (after three decades) and the web (in its second decade) are now treated as infrastructure says it all, and this is a Good Thing ®.

The language is also important, and I continue to wince at George Gilder's revolutionary talk although he is now (slightly) chastened. My reading is that we need to emphasize a sedate, gray-suited discourse to keep the bankers and traders happy and the loud "content" industry at bay. Infrastructure should be boring despite the breathless prose we see in the business rags. Technology was made prematurely sexy in the dot com era; the implications of technology are what are important, not the technology itself. The markets for cement and most other commodities don't raise eyebrows and nor should networks. The logical lesson of the end-to-end principle is that communication networks are about connectivity, everything else is gravy.

I'll suggest then that normalcy is what engineers should aim for in this discussion. The Generative Internet is a good contribution to the debate as it is rooted in an understanding of the engineering insight of the end-to-end principle and the way platforms are developed and evolve. The dissection of the personal computer industry is instructive too as an argument by analogy in the technology world. The exploitation of Moore's Law and the black gold of silicon, the sweet spot of the mass-market where Intel and now AMD have been able to make hay, the platform effects that Microsoft has been able to leverage in the mass market etc., all these continue to drive that Great Game.

The weakest part of Zittrain's paper is where he declares that the end-to-end argument needs to be superseded and that "end-to-end does not fully capture the overall project of maintaining generativity". The primary reason for this postulate is the rhetorical strawman he constructs of end-to-end neutrality. Those advocating what they call "network neutrality" are simply being cute. They are implying, for quite pragmatic and rhetorical reasons (read effectiveness of lobbying), that there are no costs to neutrality; that neutrality is value neutral. It's a nice trick as far as framing a debate goes, but it is a trick nevertheless and it should be discounted accordingly.

Odlyzko has noted that spending on communication services (and especially the connectivity component) is huge, dwarfing many other segments of the economy (and before Rumsfeld's folly it was even trending towards the amount spent on national defense in the United States). Those vested interests and a $300 billion dollar sector will buy lots of slick rhetoric and astute framing. Zittrain carries on to suggest that the inevitable endpoint of the end-to-end argument is a network teeming with, on the one hand, viruses and spam and, on the other, silos and walled gardens. Having raised the spectre of these undoubted bogeymen that obviously need regulation, we then require new paradigms and frameworks.

This is either misguided or flawed, depending on where you stand. The end-to-end argument, as restated in the low-end theory, stands up well to these charges. It is an argument about lowering coordination costs. Nowhere is it acknowledged in the original paper that there are no costs to be borne, or that there is any such thing as end-to-end neutrality. To take a concrete example of engineering expediency at work consider the implementation of congestion control in the TCP/IP suite of protocols. This is characterized by some purists as a layering hack. The upshot of current practice is that we have repeated injunctions for other network applications to be "TCP friendly" in order to preserve the commons and the kind of congestion collapse that was observed as the internet began to see increased usage in the 1980s. We can and do embed functions inside of the network systems that we develop and sometimes we even cross layers if necessary, this is simply pragmatism at work.

Thus the very premise of the end-to-end argument is that this is a matter of tradeoffs and decisions about who bears costs. Engineering decisions are never neutral, the low end theory is political and is competing with different styles in the marketplace. Its emphasis on favouring participation over control simply aims to tilt the marketplace in a direction that encourages externalities to accrue to the end rather than the core. Similarly layer stripping as a design principle in the core is about reducing complexity. In other words, it suggests a strategy for those who run the network about how they can reduce their operating costs and accrue their value in the marketplace.

Lastly I'll note that everybody has to deal with gremlins and parasites and, as Cory Doctorow has noted, "all complex ecosystems have parasites"; they are transaction costs in every marketplace. Things always fall off the back of a lorry, the banking sector tolerates a certain level of fraud etc. Further, these transactions costs are acknowledged upfront in the end-to-end argument. Also, the empirical evidence throughout human history is that silos and walled gardens (from the Berlin Wall to CompuServe) are unsustainable in the long run and that it is shrewd to bet on participation over control (and I hope Burma and North Korea don't give the lie to my optimistic outlook). Still this prognostication is only a small part of Zittrain's remit and perhaps detracts from his wider argument.

I'll acknowledge here that linguistically the generative internet is a good coinage, and perhaps it even works better than End-to-End when pitched to the average congressman. This suggests to me that the enduring value of Zittrain's analysis is likely to be in the branding of the debate. Still as the lawyers and economists gear up and build up their legal frameworks and paraphernalia of economic models to throw at us about the design of networks, we engineers should confront them with prosaic notions of building communities and enabling conversations and marketplaces. I hope the Low End Theory can similarly enrich our vocabulary in this light.

We do have secret weapons in this debate... My grandmother is a surprisingly fierce and effective lobbyist when she puts her mind to it, on topics that sometimes mystify me. Her desire to interact with her progeny and to get on the web to converse with us should not be underestimated. The evidence is clear that she'll even tolerate any amount of spam and the ever-present gremlins and parasites that prevail - in moderation of course. More generally there is the desire to reconnect with old friends (and perhaps old flames), the socialization impulse that lurks in all of us. This is why I try at every opportunity to advocate pragmatism and that we strive to build Sexy Mom Factor Software. Where soccer moms are the demographic the politicians go after, in networks we need to encourage the Grandma Lobby like those cunning financial folks who went after Scottish Widows.

To conclude, participation is winning out over control for the moment, but it is the eternal struggle and I am hoping that the current ascendancy on the internet is not a temporary respite. As with democracy in the Great Game of Politics, eternal vigilance must be our watchword. And to paraphrase he of blood, sweat and tears
End-to-End systems, or Stupid Networks if you like, are the worst form of networks except for all those others that have been tried.
The story is the same as it ever was in the Great Game of Networks and I argue here that the Low End Theory is King, or President, if like me you are a republican (with the lowercase r).

Postscript


I've decided that I like the freedom I've found living within the constraints of a series hence I'll cast this note as part 1 of The Great Game of Networks Series which itself is an offshoot of The Great Game of Technology Series which I hereby retroactively announce. The latter series started last year with some musings on The Great Game of Chips.

Soundtrack


The Low End Theory soundtrack once again comes courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 album.

The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest


This time we'll hum along to Jazz (We've Got) and nod our head's to Ron Carter's bass:
Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue
The aim is to succeed and achieve at the age of 21...

[The internet hit the prime time around the age of 21 with the arrival of the web]

So push it, along, trails, we blaze
Don't deserve the gong, don't deserve the praise...

[innovation and manufactured serendipity continues]

A brand new twist with the homie-alistic
So low-key that ya probably missed it...

[low end should be low key infrastructure]

Competition, dem Phifer come sideway
But competition, dem must come straightway

[violators need not apply, we can see you coming]

I take off my hat to other crews that intend to rock
But the Low End Theory's here, it's time to wreck shop

We've got the Jazz (x4)


So peace to that crew, and peace to this crew
Bring on the tour, we'll see you at a theatre nearest you


Next: Disruptions in Networks. Ergo, what's there to leverage?

Print version

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,