Deadlines are looming and it's also travel season, hence toli must be brief. Here then are some notes on the run...
I. Imperfect Analogies
Item: Before a certain column was published last Friday, a note I wrote used to be the top result for searches for IBM layoffs. I always worried that my musings might attract attention of The Authorities; thankfully, with Cringely taking the hyperbolical lead, they are now firmly (and hopefully permanently) under the radar...
It's been almost two years and perhaps I should revisit the France IBM Connection. Back then, I predicted that despite the malaise in France, the French would re-elect the right after Chirac stepped down.
Dig: Nicholas Sarkozy was elected president over the weekend in an election that saw record participation. French democracy is proving remarkably healthy. Although ostensibly elected on a mandate for reform, it is interesting that the old guard was the demographic group that voted for him en masse and put him over the top. In a similar vein I will not (cannot?) comment on rumours that IBM is about to decimate the ranks of its global services group and reform that business. One has to tread carefully in this lean corporate world, job (in)security and all that. I never answered the question later put to me: if IBM is France, who was it that was burning cars in the banlieues and would they survive? Implicit also was the issue of whether and how the French establishment would address the wider challenge, modernity and sundry taboos, or in the case of IBM, how it would deal with the web. My analogy was never perfect and I remain at a loss for answers on both fronts. Still, to mix a few sayings:
The stakes are high.
Observers are worried.
Closed due to computer problems.
II. Special Treatment
Delta Airways recently (December 2006) began direct flights to Accra from JFK and Baltimore. By all accounts this has been a very successful endeavour for them. Their three weekly flights are fully booked. Clearly they are servicing pent-up demand. Ever since Ghana Airways went out of business, KLM and British Airways had been reaping the wages of monopoly pricing. It's not simply that Ghanaians are homesick or that we are now able to flex our economic muscles. The Nigerians, and others seeking convenient access to West Africa, are also patronizing these flights.
There is a little twist that I observed over the weekend. Delta has done their research well and paid attention to their market. They know all too well that Africans love luggage, what with Ghana must go bags and such, and will seek to haggle over the amount of luggage that they can check in and carry on board. Further, our crowds in airports are often unruly as fellow travelers will attest. Our relationship to authority and order was perhaps poorly served by having rogues rule us for a few decades.
Thus I noted that there is a separate check-in area for travelers to Accra in the Delta terminal in New York. As I passed it on my way to San Francisco, I overheard a couple in the regular check-in area pointing and asking "What country is Accra in?" The reply: "I don't know, I don't envy them however". I looked over at the long line that was forming, the numerous bags spilling over, and heard the clamour arising from the check-in counters. The airline staff looked a little harried, and well, world-weary. Crowd control is a difficult thing especially when you are dealing with a culture that is all about conversation and the banter of marketplaces. Keep in mind that Kweku Ananse, the cunning and scheming spider, is Ghana's great cultural and literary gift to the world. They must have heard every story in the book, along with sundry inducements for bending of the rules on all forms of luggage, excess and otherwise. I was a little sad at first at our segregation, and embarrassed at being singled-out for cattle-herding. I thought it over for a while, rationalizing rather than wringing my hands, and then smiled: we have our own section, how many others can say that? Our people are being given the special treatment.
Step right up
Baby steps, baby steps.
III. Triumph of the Penguin
A sidenote: a custom version of Redhat Linux is the operating system running the in-flight entertainment system on Delta flights. This was evident from the scrolling screen messages that we observed as the air hostesses had to repeatedly reboot the system so that the other side of the plane could get their 40 channels of satellite tv. It's heartening to see the spread of Linus' little penguin even if it is only visible when there are problems - the brief flashes of startup screens. The Pentium chip grew into the public's consciousness after its flaws with floating point calculations were exposed. Paradoxically Intel never looked back once it dealt with the initial fallout of that episode. Similarly, folks continue to photograph blue screens of death in machines running Windows say in ATM machines and the like. Again that is an ironic triumph, a display of the spread of Microsoft's software into areas that were formerly the lucrative province of others. As we observe the spread of Linux as core and ubiquitous infrastructure it is good that it is similarly an iconic brand. Infrastructure is normally invisible and only appreciated when things fall apart. In this respect, I should say:
I love infrastructure.
I love glitches.
IV. Dark Brown
When I wrote my piece on Cultural Sensitivity in Technology, I alluded to a number of incidents involving glitches with Microsoft Word's dictionary or thesaurus. I never managed to track down a good reference to add before it was published. A few weeks ago however the perfect example came up, it concerned the colour dark brown. The headline read:
Offensive couch label traced to ChinaThe rest of the story is a tangled web especially apt these days as we all mind our P's and Q's and hold mock funerals.
Toronto. Doris Moore was shocked when her new couch was delivered to her home with a label that used a racial slur to describe the dark brown shade of the upholstery.
The situation was even more alarming for Moore because it was her 7-year-old daughter who pointed out "n----- brown" on the tag.
It's a wonderful and layered example of the ramifications of small things. The fingerpointing that results in this globalized world of ours is also very interesting. Who is to blame? Is it the manufacturer of the software that translated 'dark brown' in Chinese to the n-word in English? Or is it the supplier of the upholstry that used said software? Or is it rather the furniture store that sold the couch? Who is ultimately responsible for making sure that such things don't occur? Who, if anyone, should apologize? Or are such things what we should expect, the logical endpoint of globalization?
So what do we have here? A simple glitch in the continuum of cultural sensitivity resulted in innocence lost all around the world. The Chinese companies are embarrassed and worried that they will lose business - they are furiously updating all their software, the furniture store is worried about being sued, the mother learned that you can't protect your kids from that thing known as race, the 7 year old learned what a complex world we live in, a world of words that hurt and can even kill.
I was also tickled by the huhudious claim of the Indian store owner that "I've been here (Canada) since 1972 and I never knew the meaning of this word". That is indeed as brazen as it gets.
The remaining absurdity lies in the visiting "friends over from St. Lucia" who "wouldn't sit on the couch." I wish I could meet said friends, they push this toli into sublime territory.
A Brown Playlist
Some music celebrating the darker shade... Liner notes to follow.
- Brother Bones - Sweet Georgia Brown
* The Harlem Globetrotters's theme
- D'Angelo - Brown Sugar
- Bob Marley - Mr. Brown
- India Arie - Brown Skin
- Cassandra Wilson - Drunk as Cooter Brown
- Tevin Campbell - Brown Eyed Girl
- Zap Mama - Mr. Brown
- Roni Size - Brown Paper Bag
- James Brown - Blind Man Can See It
- Grand Puba - Proper Education
- King Britt - Brown Street
- Miles Davis - Frelon Brun (Brown Hornet)
- Duke Ellington - The Brown-Skin Gal (In the Calico Gown)
- Omar - Golden Brown
- Roy Ayers & Edwin Birdsong - Pretty Brown Skin
File under: IBM, France, Ghana, USA, airport, luggage, culture, observation, life, globalization, language, software, technology, glitches, race, brown, toli