Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Great Game

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not

— Hilaire Belloc in The Modern Traveller, 1898

Have no fear of atomic energy
For none of them can stop the time

Bob Marley - Redemption Song, 1980
the modern traveller

Iraq isn't Africa, Iraqis shoot back.

— Robert Baer in Iraq's Mercenary King: Politics & Power, 2007

We see Africa as probably the greatest open field of manoeuvre in the worldwide competition between the [communist] bloc and the non-communist.

— President John F. Kennedy, 1962

All for you
It is all for you

E.T. Mensah & The Tempos - All For You, 1948
cecil rhodes astride africa
Cecil Rhodes - From Cairo to Capetown

How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfil the book

— Bob Marley - Redemption Song

When you came you had the Bible and we had the land. Now you have the land and we have the Bible.

— Unknown 'native', 19th century

And freedom is the issue. The stakes are that high.

Ronald Reagan, 1986
freedom kagyah

There are no rules in [this] game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If [redacted] is to survive, longstanding American concepts of "fair play" must be reconsidered... It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.

— Report of the United States Hoover Commision, 1950

One man struggles while another relaxes.

Massive Attack - Hymn of the Big Wheel
elegance and chaos
Beirut, Lebanon, summer 2006

A belligerent state permits itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would disgrace the individual. It makes use against the enemy not only of the accepted ruses de guerre, but of deliberate lying and the deception as well - and to a degree which seems to exceed the usage of former wars.

— Sigmund Freud - Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, 1915

There are only people behaving, and sometimes behaving monstrously.

Ian McEwan disputing the notion of evil, 2002

Takes behaviour to get along.
Lots of behaviour to get along.
Do you really, really know that?
Social Living is the best

Do you know? Social Living is the best

Burning Spear - Social Living

Honam mu nni nhanoa
(Humanity has no boundary)

— Akan proverb, Ghana

Ex Africa simper aliquid novi
(Always something new out of Africa)

— Pliny the Elder, 1st Century Rome
No Problem by Lalelani

Cultural interplay is the name of the Great Game.
I wonder: who is writing today's script?

This note is part of the Things Fall Apart series under the banner of the rough beast.

Next: The Modern Traveller (Reclaiming the Maxim Gun)

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Spotted: an HTML Button

"Good god, man... How a person can write so much about HTML buttons fascinates me." - A toli commentator
Per Google, I have an unseemly amount of clout when it comes to the subject of the HTML button born of 9,000 word folktales bemoaning its general under-appreciation and lack of use.

I've always felt guilty that I didn't offer more prescription to the 50-60 searchers who daily come across that piece. Still I thought I was only stating the obvious (albeit at length, and with tongue in cheek).

Thus I was pleased to note yesterday that Google Reader switched from its misguided use of simple hyperlinked text for its "Refresh" and "Mark all as read" functions to now use items that look like html buttons. I won't bemoan their developers not using native html buttons since they've at least recognized that it is best to have clear indicators for potentially unsafe operations. I wonder when Bloglines will follow suit...

google reader uses buttons

I'll echo Phil Ringnalda again:
Making the fire alarm look just like a light switch isn't an example of daring and innovative design, it's just dangerous.
These small usability tweaks add up to broaden the appeal of the web which after all is our great mass participation medium. My rule of thumb in systems design is that we should favour participation over control. I believe this notion extends to user interface design. Giving up full control of the user interface in favour of standards tends to benefit an application because it often meshes with user expectations. There is paradoxical joy to be found in a constrained design space.

A parting sidenote: for the past few months I've been working on the Dojo toolkit, that open source javascript toolkit. At a certain point it was vaguely suggested that I work on form widgets including developing custom buttons. As you might suspect, I immediately demurred and disqualified myself pointing to my paean to html buttons. My position is unchanged: in as much as possible, one should use the built-in browser components and lobby the browser vendors to implement XForms, Web Forms 2.0 or whatever standard can improve the experience of building form applications on the web. HTML forms have been second class citizens for too long yet they are essentially the equivalent of Mary Magdalene and the disciples - the foot soldiers of the web style (digression: Bill de hÓra has been grumbling of late that HTML forms are the original sin of the web). I am pleased to see movement on many fronts these days. Every little bit helps I suppose. Let's celebrate these small things:

Next: The ballad of the link

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Busia Papers

Is democracy of universal application?
Not exactly small talk, yet that was the kind of question I imagined being thrown around the table in my virtual dinner party. Last year's series on Social Living didn't get very far, only personal and whimsical pieces made it past the draft stage; I never quite managed to flesh out my guided tour of Ghanaian historical engagement with that theme and didn't gave voice to my dinner companions. Which leads me belatedly to the Busia papers...

One of my side-projects, much neglected in the years since I came upon this material, is the editing of a collection of the writings and speeches of Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia, the former Prime Minister of Ghana. In the spirit of Ghana's Jubilee Year, our 50 years of independence, I thought it would be worth sharing a few of the articles in the collection. I hope some might be of interest.

  • Is Democracy of Universal Application?
    This essay, published in 1979, is taken from a special volume of articles on democracy on the occasion of Werner Kaägi's 70th birthday. Tightly argued, it cogently distills a lifetime of insight on the eternal topic. It is one of Busia's last published works and was written in exile only months before his death in 1978.
Ghanaians seem to like grappling with cultural sensitivities. I'll note in passing that our recent great export is that world citizen: Kofi Annan. For Busia, the issue was social change and democracy, its shape and its efficacy in our environs. Similarly you'll find our philosophers expounding on cultural universals and particulars (Wiredu) or whether there is virtue in cosmopolitanism (Appiah) or modernity (Gyekye). Our writers worry about mimicry (Sekyi), our historians, journalists and lawyers about tradition, our musicians, artists and even our engineers all seem to worry about communities. It's not very sexy but it befits the outlook of a small country. Still, I suppose there are worse brands than cultural interpreters.

Ghana National Assembly 1971

Busia lead the country during the Second Republic from 1969 to 1972, and was overthrown by a military coup on January 13, 1972. An eminent sociologist, he had turned to politics out of necessity and his brand of conversational politics has had a lasting legacy in Ghana. His writings however have not been as widely disseminated as they should and, sadly, many are now out of print.

Busia interests me as a prime example of Ghanaians as cultural interpreters and modern travellers. His academic career was distinguished and the scholarly works were numerous. Along with the public intellectual persona, there was the family man, the religious man. Of course there was also the politician and his was a lifelong struggle for Ghana.

There was the anti-colonial struggle along with J.B. Danquah and others. There was the post-colonial struggle and disappointment - he had to live in exile from Nkrumah's one party rule watching the country decay and his friends and colleagues detained and persecuted. There was the elation of the return in 1966 and gaining power in the 1969 elections with the promise of putting the country back on the right footing. Then again, in the bitterest setback, his government was overthrown and he was exiled again. Thus he was treated to the sight of the looting and worse of his country in his dying years.

His political progeny are currently in ascendance in Ghana, and his positions have on the whole been vindicated. Still, having foresight and being right in politics while ending up on the "wrong" side is little consolation. I find comfort however in Busia's tenacity as things fell apart. He continued to question, to argue and to persuade. There was strengh in his conviction, in the words of another of his writings, that "Ghana will be truly free and happy".

The thread that runs through the writings is the working of an extraordinary and methodical mind. One sees the intellectual energy and deep thought of a great academic. It is the great curiousity of the sociologist coupled with keen political instincts. At the same time, like many Ghanaians, he was a great storyteller, he knew how to give a speech, with biting wit that cut to the chase.

Consider the celebrated lecture on The Prospects for Democracy in Africa delivered at the Eighteenth Christmas Holiday Lectures and Discussions for Tomorrow's Citizens organized by The Council for Education in World Citizenship in London on 4th January 1961. Note well the 'world citizen' motif. Here we have Busia as the ultimate cosmopolitan, advocating democracy and methodically taking apart the often spurious arguments of expedience profered about democracy in Africa. This is fairly representative of his style, rebutting at once the opportunists at home and the faint-hearted democrats in the West that chose, then and now, to prop up authoritarian regimes.

Explaining his turn to politics:
I loved my work as a teacher, but what was the use of sitting down in the University of Ghana trying to teach people on the basis that they will go and work in a Free Society which would have respect for their ability, whatever it was, and give them the opportunity to serve their country. What was the use of doing that when I knew that they were going to go into a built-up dictatorship that would enslave their minds.
He worried that
today we have a band of leaders, some of them so anxious to strain for the big buildings, big cars and motor cycles and destructive weapons that they have forgotten that the one important contribution that the African can make to the world is to keep reminding everyone that it is out of sympathy and the love for one another that we can build eventually what is valuable and peaceful.
"People matter" was his favourite talking point. He was willing to sacrifice some measure of rapid economic development on the altar of social living. As he put it:
I am in the camp of those who place a higher value on democracy than on material value. I therefore do not think that countries should develop more rapidly, even if they could, than is feasible within a democratic framework. This is based on the belief that human beings are what matter most in the world.
His legacy is thus all about conversational politics, about maintaining an openness to participation even when it is not expedient. There's even the minor controversy he raised later on about "not ruling out 'dialogue'" with the apartheid regime of South Africa. Even if his nuanced position would foreshadow the negotiations that transpired 20 years later, it was not a popular position for an African head of state in 1971.

Busia portrait

As I've gone through the collection I've often found the letters and more offbeat material as illuminating as the more formal works. Discussing the encounter between Christianity and African cultures, he turns the customary question around and asks instead: "has the Christian faith been adequately presented?". Or take Ghana Since Independence - a reply for example. This was a short letter to the editor in The Friends' Quarterly (January 1965) setting the record straight about the situation in Ghana then at the height of Nkrumah's one-party rule. You get a sense of his exasperation at the amount of misinformation and cheerleading of "Socialism with an African Personality", personality cults and the like. These were stark years as I considered previously.

More heartfelt also are his reflections on one-party government in Ghana, a 1964 speech to Ghanaian students. He notes:
My political career is motivated by one thing above all. By the firm conviction that I have in my heart and my mind that all men share a common humanity. That irrespective of a man's colour he is a man; and that in Africa too, we have people who, given the right kind of leadership and the right kind of opportunity, can rise to the highest that man has risen to anywhere in the world.
The rest of that speech is full of similar insight and his appeal is very direct. It is fitting that his inaugural address would reiterate this consistent theme: a "yearning concern for every individual citizen".

The final piece I'll highlight is a pamphlet titled Judge for Yourself. It was written in June 1956 as a companion to the party manifesto on the eve of the elections that would lead to independence the next year. It laid out the opposition's position on the Constitution, raising "the issue of Moral Standards" and questioning the CPP's "unwise and innefficient administration". Months later, in a memorandum titled Gold Coast Independence, he expands on the point that "there is no provision for any checks and balances" in the political structure of the First Republic. The prescient worries that "there should be provisions in the Constitution before Independence to safeguard regional and minority rights" sadly went unheeded and Ghana paid the price.

The lengthy arguments made in the years before independence were not about the necessity of independence - that was a given. Instead Busia and others focused on ensuring that the days after independence and beyond would bear the promise of communal living and achievement that Ghanaians had every right to expect. He concluded with words that are worth pondering 50 years later:
"The eyes of the world are upon us; the rest of suffering Africa looks to us for an inspired leadership and we dare not let them down. We must be prepared to give everything, life itself, to ensure that we lay sound foundations for the future happiness, greatness and prosperity of our country. Our independence must have moral foundations on which we can build our heritage of the future."

See: The Busia Papers

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Types and Faces

My friend Nate pointed out André Gide's Travels in the Congo to me a few months ago. We've been carrying on this occasional conversation about travel writing, perceptions, Africa, Conrad and the like.

travels in the Congo

In passing he mentioned that the book's typeface reminded him of Rob Giampietro's fascinating article on the Neuland question which discusses
"Neuland, a "display" typeface hand-carved in 1923 by Rudolf Koch but also Lithos, another "display" typeface digitally created in 1989 by Carol Twombly"...

How did these two typefaces come to signify Africans and African-Americans, regardless of how a designer uses them, and regardless of the purpose for which their creators originally intended them?
Let's have Nadine Gordimer as the token African.

Nadine Gordimer My Son's Story

Richard Wright can serve as the token African-American.

Uncle tom children

There's a discussion about the history of those typefaces and how they came to embody an authentic sense of, well, ethnicity shall we say. "Stereotypography" was how Nate put it. "Blackface" might be another appropriate pun. There's lots to say about such signifiers. I can certainly imagine further papers on "Issues of authenticity and its visual vocabulary: field lessons from Gutenberg's press".

All of which reminded me of the box of Ubuntu Rooibos tea from South Africa that The Wife had picked up on her travels. It's one of those "sustainable agribusiness", fair trade, touchy-feely things marketed by an offshoot of USAID. The brand names, Ubuntu and Mpuntu, let you know what you're getting into. In case you're not convinced, the obligatory typeface is a great signifier and adds the requisite marketing frisson of authenticity: Africa. Motherland. Earth etc.

ubuntu tea

My own copy of the Travels in the Congo arrived in the mail today, and before I could turn the page and note Gide's dedication to Joseph Conrad (all travel writing owes a debt to Conrad so this was unsurprising), I was confronted by the striking cover. I realized that I'd ordered a different edition.

travels in the congo 1962 edition

Hmmm. That's more like it. Congo: breasts, nudity, enlarged ornamental lips, pygmies, natives. You don't tend to see these kinds of images on book covers any longer. They'll appear on National Geographic magazines to be sure, or coffee table books, but not on the paperback that you pull out on the bus. It appears that some cultural threshold has been crossed in the recent past, my guess is that this took place around the mid-seventies and there has been a consequent marketing realignment or adjustment.

A more subtle indicator is required and the typeface is one of the few tools product designers have, along with the product names to indicate the essence of the product they are trying to move. You need to know what you're getting but these days we don't discuss race - or at least it's always a very polite discussion. As we say in Ghana: how for do?

A theory formed in my mind that when it came time to revise Gide's work in the later 1994 edition, it was no longer culturally appropriate in the US to display nubile, big-lipped natives, even if they were all the rage back when my 1962 edition was published (that liberal Berkeley Press!). There are probably throngs of academics working on such material.

I amended the topic of the paper to "Changing mores, changing types, changing faces in representations of Africa: field lessons from Gutenberg's press". I like how academic papers seem to go with lots of sub-clauses in their paper titles.

I then remembered that Fred had discussed Then I Saw the Congo, a 1920's travel memoir by Grace Flandrau. I put in my order for that book; we all need more writing about Congo. Its cover is less exotic than Gide's. Its subtle imagery, the silhouetted rowboat of natives on the Congo river dates back to Stanley's expeditions. The mighty river Congo has great visual appeal and looms large in African iconography.

I turned around, glanced at my bookshelf and immediately noticed a couple of books that fit the visual mold. The first was In Griot Time, An American guitarist in Mali by Banning Eyre. The ubiquitous font is overlaid on his photo of Djelimady Tounkara who Teju Cole reckons as the best guitarist in the world - I won't quibble, but what about Prince?

In Griot Time

Checking Amazon, I noticed that a later edition (2002 - only 2 years on) dispenses with our typeface-du-jour and sadly also that the musician, whose face I can no longer make out, is now squashed behind the prison bar-like guitar strings tucked in the cavernous confines of a grey guitar.

In Griot Time

What should one make of the demotion of both the black-faced guitarist and our typeface? What was the designer attempting in the reworked cover? In mitigation, one notes that there is the green, yellow and red in the background to indicate the colours of the Malian flag, although one must add, the colours are washed out, perhaps to indicate the ancient status of the music, and of Mali. Authenticity is preserved, I suppose, although the ethnic signifiers have been toned down. I guess it's fair, there was no need to beat the shopper over the head as the original cover did. We could have figured things out from the subtitle.

Robert Klitgaard's Tropical Gangsters also jumped out to me.

Robert Klitgaard - Tropical Gangsters

It has the great subtitle: "One man's experience with development and decadence in deepest Africa". You don't quite need to write "darkness", "deepest Africa" gets the point across. Now of course Condi Rice and co. have no qualms dealing with the Equatorial Gangsters that Klitgaard deconstructs in his book, so I guess decadence is appropriate in the title. Kurtz's moral decay is quite apt when one reads things like the following hatchet job (Thatcher alert):
Equatorial Guinea had the bad luck to come to independence under Macias Nguema, whose rule was so terrible that a third of the population was either killed or fled. Though he had people garrotted, buried alive and beheaded (and their heads stuck on poles), the detail that sticks in my mind is his having 150 people executed to the tune of 'Those Were the Days, My Friend' played over stadium loudspeakers.
Tropical horrors continue to be our mainstay on the continent it is sad to say. Everyone owes a debt of gratitude to Conrad it seems.

Which reminds me... The best history book on Africa since independence is Paul Nugent's appropriately titled Africa Since Independence.

Africa Since Independence

If you take a look at the cover, it's as if you are out on a safari, the zebra is quietly crossing the scene in the foreground, the wide trees spread out in vistas of the savanna, you almost expect to spot a lion lazily stepping into to the picture - or an antelope perhaps. Simba. Kimba. Bambi etc. That image has almost nothing to do with the content of this brilliantly-constructed book other than to be a prime stereotype of Africa. Indeed I can't think of an image that could do more violence to the words of this sophisticated book, focused as it is on Africa's post-colonial history and the vagaries of modernity. Is that really the image of Africa since independence?

I'm fairly sure that Nugent had almost no input on his book's cover. Like almost all authors - and certainly all the ones I've pointed out in this note, let alone those South African rooibos farmers - he would have had nothing to do with the packaging of his works. Very few authors have the clout to insist on cover art, they are spent by the time the discussion over the book title is done. Still I almost disregarded his book, judging it as I did by its cover. Perhaps those purchasing history textbooks respond to different things. It goes to show that those cues can have can great influence, whether it is overt imagery or even typefaces.

I amended the paper's title: "Types and Faces: Visual Identites and cross-cultural (mis)understandings - (re)visting the Congo through fonts".

I would normally close with a playlist - and I've had requests for a Heart of Darkness playlist, but that can wait. Instead, apropos the business of not judging a book by its cover, I'll end with a Congolese proverb:
A white tooth has a bloody root.

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