Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Ways of the Porcupine

Notes on reading the novels of Alain Mabanckou.

I. Restraint

A writer who shows restraint on a topic that is prime for exuberant fireworks is a rarity. When that topic is the dislocation of a civil war, you start to wonder. When the writer is known for splendid wordsmithing atmospherics, you take notice at the muted tone you encounter. As you read and can palpably feel the wrenching of the conflicts that the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville that is) was subjected to, you are even more surprised by the self-effacing prose. As you observe the contrast between the close and personal observations - the subtlety in short of the text, and the groundswell of manic viciousness that sweeps a country, you ask yourself if he can keep it up. When the voices of the female characters are realized so poignantly, you scratch your head thinking back to the author's reputation for shrewd depictions of male worlds. What do we have here, you ask yourself? All is not quite what it seems.

When you are branded a young lion, it takes restraint to not growl. When you have been feted as a stylistic innovator, it takes restraint to write within the margins. And so I came to read Alain Mabanckou's Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix. And so I was drawn deep into his world. I had previously read his debut novel, Bleu Blanc Rouge (1998), a bravura work for sure (and more on that anon) and had already placed him in the vanguard of modern African literature. Reading Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix simply marked him as a singular talent tout court. I was plainly impressed by his remarkable restraint. Would that more African writers follow his lead; too often we aim for the epic when the delicate touch would be just as ambitious.

There is a certain virus that afflicts human societies that's ostensibly to do with identity - sometimes it's couched as nationalism, sometimes as tribalism, oftentimes it's plain jingoism. Demagogues feed on it, and sadly many politicians find it hard to resist. It's a seminal disease whose symptoms at its worst involve people who had previously been living alongside each other erupting into murderous violence. The last century was a particularly bloodthirsty exemplar of this. The former Yugoslavia was a notoriously teachable moment about the endurance of such tribalism (Europeans don't seem to like the word for whatever reason). Africans of course are not immune to this disease; indeed, some often paint the continent as a great incubator of vicious innovation in this sphere. In the politics of Congo-Brazzaville of the last thirty years, militias were its expression. Whether it was those favoured by Denis Sassou Nguesso or some of the other rogues that the country had the misfortune to be afflicted with, militias wrought havoc with gruesome efficiency.

Les Petits-fils negres de Vercingetorix


The most interesting question to the reader in me is the form that the artistic response to such events takes. How does one write about topics as loaded as what we now brand as ethnic cleansing? And what kind of literature emerges in the wake of these uncivil wars? Surveying the scene - since similar tragedies have been plentiful in Africa, the literature, on the whole, has aimed for the epic. Sometimes the emphasis has been on the absurdity of the goings-on, other times writers have gone for sober reflection, always, however, the stories come out epic. Think of Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah n'est pas obligé, think of Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny, Chien Méchant, and, less successfully, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation in recent times as takes on the warlordism and child soldiering. On the other hand, I'd advance as paragons of epic sobriety Helon Habila's Measuring Time, Yvonne Vera's The Stone Virgins and, on Biafra, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. Standing essentially alone, Alain Mabanckou's strategy is restraint.

Les Petits-fils negres de Vercingetorix


Perhaps the most telling choice he makes is to do with the question of form. Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix is an episodic novel, written in the form of notebooks that a woman is writing to try and make sense of a life that has been upturned. It is about a barely disguised Congo-Brazzaville - a country placed into upheaval by militias and a North/South divide that affects families even to the extent of turning a man against his wife and even his own daughter. The inspired choice of diaries is at once a constraint - it almost obliviates grand storytelling and a kind of epic sweep - and a release, the narrower focus brings a intimate immediacy to the fore. The form allows for ellipses and the gaps are always telling, for when do we have the time and discipline to return to one's notebook? What is left unsaid can be inferred without much work on the reader's part, and, sometimes, the implications are so ominous that you wish that he had inserted a scene to salve the tension you feel.

Here is an African writer eschewing nativism and metaphorical excess a la Ben Okri. There is no fat, there is nothing to trim in the narrative. He doesn't traffic in arch constructions and just gives a story plainly told. The emphasis is on small scale journeys. Restraint in the form then serves to accentuate the dislocation that occurs.

It is a deeply felt book, I'd hazard even that it is the most personal of his books and it is the one in which he discarded the customary humourous mask he proffers. It is also the least 'literary' of his works which it makes it more satisfying to my mind - as he has been embraced by the academy, his novels have taken on more academic concerns. The novel considers what family and friendship mean when ethnicity becomes paramount and driven by parochial concerns. The lens is focused on two families that have crossed the ethnic divide and the repercussions they face as politicians ratchet up tensions. Perhaps the tale is best expressed by considering the two covers of the different editions: the one focusing on a woman and the other on a military parade. The latter, with the military in their shiny uniforms, perhaps representing the dissipation of so much of the continent's promise and energy. The cruelty of the militias that form is unrelenting and ugly and weighs on everyone.

It is fascinating that Mabanckou manages to give entire histories of these cruel militias and the men who used them as shock troops within the constraints of the novel's framework. You wouldn't expect that kind of pointillist historiography from mere diaries. It's as if Anne Frank's limited perspective from her Amsterdam hiding place grows to encompass the entire sweep of the world war. You don't notice it at first because there isn't an omniscient narrator at work, but all the players in Congo's madness are indelibly sketched, and vividly so. They could have been caricatures but instead are characterized with economical writing and steady accumulation of close observation.

I marvel at the power of this elegiac novel. Reading it, we learn that, with restraint, the tales of displacement that are part of the African story can be written with such delicate reflection. How does a seemingly clear-eyed society rend itself so thoroughly? And what are the costs to family and friendships? Restraint, indeed, is what that sterile modern phrase 'ethnic cleansing' deserves. Such is the way of the porcupine.

II. Empathy

All that glitters is not bleu, blanc, rouge. That, in brief, was the message of Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, my introduction to the writings of the man I'll call the porcupine. And what a debut this 1998 novel was. I can't praise it highly enough, for it contains multitudes within it. Read it as a novel about yearning, read it as a novel about immigration, revel in the fond portrait of Congo - wrinkles and all, enjoy the comic set pieces, and laugh, above all, laugh. In all these ways, you will encounter a very assured writer who found his voice early on. In many ways, it is a testament to the anglophone myopia in African literature that this wonderful book is only now seeing a translation into English as Blue White Red.

Alain Mabanckou Bleu Blanc Rouge


Bleu Blanc Rouge of course refers to the French flag; its embodiment in Parisian streets serves as a stand-in for the promised land (at least for those growing up in francophone Africa). Ostensibly then, there is this loving pull to leave one's land and head to streets paved with gold. "Abroad" is a message repeatedly hammered home to young Africans, and, along with its counterpart "The City", it has been one of the irresistible forces in post-colonial Africa. Our literature has followed accordingly, and the best treatments have always stemmed from authors who have great empathy.

The story of the African diaspora in France has universal echoes and, much like the story of any diaspora amidst their erstwhile colonizers, has built-in drama and comedy (the tension of exile, nostalgic longing and the process of adaptation to the funny ways of the locals etc.). The stories of Africans in England, Spain and Portugal touch on all these areas. Still I relate what Mabanckou does in Bleu Blanc Rouge most closely to what Samuel Selvon did in writing a great comic novel with sharp edges about the Caribbean diaspora in The Lonely Londoners, and with similar humour. Beyond that, Mabanckou appears to do what Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy does in a different medium, illuminate an entire society. He is not content to simply concentrate on what happens once you leave your homeland, he intends to fully explore the life you were leading in said homeland. Indeed he captures so many textures you'd suspect him of being a seasoned anthropologist.

Structurally and thematically we can read the novel in three broad sections.
  • Bleu - the blues of aspiration. Why is the lure of going abroad so strong even when there isn't political exigency driving things?
  • Blanc - the color of snow and the cold life abroad with the Caucasian natives. The hustle of immigrant life is examined.
  • Rouge - the red of conflict and disappointment, in this case dealing with the quiet return home and even deportation.
The young narrator, although ostensibly middle class, has given up on his studies and is making do in his own desultory way. Presumably it is a measure of the futility he sees of getting highly educated only to join the ranks of the hordes of graduate unemployed on the lookout for patronage in a country where cronyism is how things run.

He is inevitably drawn to those who affect to be gentlemen of leisure. What makes the novel indelible is its portrait of the culture that we know as La Sape. The first part of the book might well be the most complete account of the rise of the sapeurs of Congo. La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (La Sape) is the star of the novel.

Alain Mabanckou Blue White Red


Mabanckou grew up among these iconoclasts. Their sartorial choices were a brazen reaction against the Authenticité campaign that Mobutu had embarked on next door (a campaign echoed initially by Sassou Nguessou close to home). At the same time in their lifestyle, they had taken to heart the dictator's more direct edict: Débrouillez vous. He describes with considerable humour (and without judgment) their seeming cult of materialism, their love of designer labels, of style over substance perhaps, their playful way with language and their dedication to living by their wits.

He regales us with fond descriptions of the origins of the sapeurs, he is especially acute about the difference between the sapeurs of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. We learn about those who lived that life, and their effect on those who grew up among them. The sapeur lore is recounted: the exuberance of their competitions, the mixture of hubris and bravado at work in their core... The set pieces that punctuate the book are a comic delight.

The seduction is quite real and embodied in the character of Moki - Charles Moki, who looms larger than life throughout the novel. Moki, one of those 'Aristocrates' and the most legendary of the 'Parisiens', might be considered the king of those sapeurs. They return from Paris with bags of designer clothes that they sell and exchange, spread money around town, flaunt their peacock wares, and tell tall tales about their life abroad.

There is an acute analysis of their descriptions of the promised land. The appeal of going abroad to Paris or Bruxelles lies in the perception of gold-lined streets in Babylon. A running joke in Marguerite Abouet's Aya de Youpougon series is of the man who is always promising to take you to Paris. In her works, the response is always skeptical yet the comic hyperbole used by those who come back about how things are easy abroad (as rendered by Mabanckou) will wear down even the most skeptical. And so we head abroad.

Paris proves to be a rude awakening. The narrator finds that Moki in Paris is a quite different man and, more generally, that life in Paris is quite different (read difficult) from what he had been led to believe. The contrast between the relative ease of life back home in Congo (even in poverty) and the squalid lives that many immigrants lead is something to behold.

Like Calixthe Beyala whose Le Petit Prince de Belleville paved the way (translated as Loukoum), Mabanckou depicts the reality that immigrants find hustling in Paris. Whether it is living illegally in vacant housing, sleeping in shifts on the floor of a squat, working multiple menial jobs and in the case of many sapeurs, getting embroiled in check fraud and any manner of illegality. The hardships are many and pressure of this fraught existence can weigh on you.

Congo Paris


Consider a sociological text like Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law - a book that The Wife assigns in one of her African history classes. As an academic study of some of the same characters, it covers the same terrain exploring these men doing the gruntwork of globalization and capitalism. And yet I would hazard that far more insight, and indeed fun, would be gained by seeing things through Mabanckou's lens.

A Squatter's Tale by Ike Oguine is in the same vein, dealing with Nigerians who make it to the Bay Area in the US. A similar mix of bemusement and understanding suffuses the narrative. In another medium Alain Gomis's film L'Afrance tackles how one oversight can lead one to fall through bureaucratic cracks into the illegal immigrant category. With Mabanckou, however, one doesn't get the sense of a didactic point being made. The question of values is certainly on the agenda and one might well read this novel as a cautionary tale, but he wouldn't push you in that direction. The reason is his evident empathy for his characters and his ability to find humour even in the disillusionment about what one finds abroad: the drab immigrant life, the hustling for identity papers, the shadow life, the turn to crime etc. Indeed, when things go awry in the inevitable third act the authorial voice remains equanimous. The fall from grace is as entertaining as the rest of the novel.

If Mabanckou was not the first of the growing number of Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France, he was certainly among the most assured and definitive. He revels in close observation and has a perfect ear for dialog. One finds in him a writer comfortable in his storytelling and deeply empathetic to his characters. One expects nothing less of a porcupine.

III. Provocation

African Psycho is a provocation. Try reading it in public, or leave it on your bus or subway seat, and observe the response of your fellow commuters. The title is pure agent-provocateur evoking, with a clin d'oeuil, Bret Easton Ellis. Everything about it demands attention, from the title, to the plot, the style of the prose and the inspired language. The English translation of African Psycho is serviceable although to my ear it doesn't capture the playful tone nor indeed the fireworks that Alain Mabanckou delivers in this novel.

African Psycho


The edition I have has a cover that showcases the madcap energy of the writing. The covers of other editions emphasize the youth aspect rather than the emotion. Mabanckou drops zingers every so often as if to keep you unbalanced throughout your reading. There is hardly a page without sentences make you gasp at their audacity or laugh at the goings-on.

The plot, such as it is, is detailed nonchalantly. It is the story of a street kid, an orphan sent from foster family to foster family. Self esteem is not on the agenda. He thinks he's ugly with repeated complaints about his 'tete rectangulaire'. A loser prone to self delusion, he is what you'd call minable in French. Full of resentment if not anger and poor as hell, he knows his shantytown well. Unlike many in the slums who seem to be getting on with life, he is a teeming mass of grievances. Looking out to 'le pays d'en face' across the river, there is resentment about the other Congo - Kinshasa, which is bigger and more famous than Congo-Brazaville, heck they even send their prostitutes over here. Our man's gripes echo the blind spots of Patrick Bateman's character in American Psycho although his are more legitimate than the latter's ludicrous obsession with labels, style and crass materialism.

The conceit of the novel is that he aspires to be a serial killer. You'll therefore note the explicit harkening to the themes of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or even Camus' L'étranger. Unlike those antecedents, the protagonist is all aspiration. He couldn't kill a mouse if he set himself up for it. He'd make elaborate plans and find repeated excuses for why the mouse escaped this time. It's rather like one of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder entertainments. It's as if he initially decided to draw you in with the titillation of the setup but changed his mind, and rather settled to entertain you with a comic meditation on inept aspiration. After all death is far too frequent in African life and literature. The vibrant and showy language also reminds me of Dany Laferrière's Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. Literary young lions provoking readers and critics alike before getting down to business.

The porcupine, like the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin's retelling, knows one one big thing. In that vein, it is plain that Alain Mabanckou cannot tell a bad story no matter how light the premise. He is blessed as a storyteller in much the same way that Evelyn Waugh had an unerring ear for satire. Like Waugh he also had quite prodigious early works (read Bleu Blanc Rouge as his Decline and Fall if you will). Oftentimes, however, to gain literary renown one must aim to be a fox. One never knows what critics or indeed the market will reward.

I have a pet theory that African Psycho was a throat clearing exercise, something he wanted to get out out his system before really stretching his shoulders and demonstrating his versatility beyond 'mere storytelling'. If my reading of the chronology is correct, he would next get a new publisher and start teaching literature in the US, gaining further insight into how to carve his place in the literary world. The provocative fireworks of African Psycho should then be seen as a transition or even a stepping stone. As such it has been a success, indeed, everything published since has been untouchable.

IV. Deception

Well perhaps deception is too strong a word especially since the confounding of expectations was welcome. Call it sleight of hand and a very studied and knowing affair, Verre Cassé - now available in translation as Broken Glass, is a literary hall of mirrors, the titular broken shards of glass reflecting fabulous visions at the reader.

At first Mabanckou approaches you with what seems to be a grotesque sort of Arabian Nights - or perhaps we should refer to some of the bawdier tales spun by Chaucer's travelers in The Canterbury Tales. The nightly revelry takes place at a bar and, as you settle down for the latest story, the regulars compete to add outré twists as if to ask can you top this one. From sordid tales about cuckoldry to pissing contests, he literally leaves you in the merde.

Verre Casse


About halfway through however, you you realize that Mabanckou is actually more interested in his narrator than in the baroque folktales spun nightly by the bar regulars. It's the David Lodge sensibility, lovingly, ever so lovingly, dragged into the gutter. Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down is the best model for what is at work. One could read the latter as a straight comic novel, but the real pleasure and the playfulness comes when you realize that it embeds parodies of some of the most august authors. Lodge's tome spins pitch perfect voicings of everyone from James Joyce, through Franz Kafka to Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad.

Verre Cassé is similarly full of wordplay and literary allusions dropped as the bar tales are told with the studied effort of seasoned drunkard. You'll find puns about Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), The Old Man and the Medal (Ferdinand Oyono) and even Camara Laye's L'Enfant Noir. There are no sacred cows; these influences are deployed, probed and deconstructed fluidly. The reader can bask in the oral tradition of storytelling like that of Chamoiseau in the vein of Solibo Magnifique.



You learn that your narrator host is someone whose head is full of literature - a stand-in for the author perhaps, who at this point had come to be teaching French literature in the US. He's drawn you in with humourous observations and is such good company that you'll want to drink at the same bar and, dare I say, read the same books. He had found the formula in this novel and the critical acclaim and major prizes started flowing his way.

The old wives' tale is that the porcupine's quills can be thrown at advancing predators and form the ultimate defensive weapons. The reality is that the prickly exterior is best adapted for camouflage. In the dark recesses of our minds, we know to crouch instinctively when the porcupine gathers himself in a ball. Most of the time however we don't notice him, hidden as he is in the foliage. Such wry deception, you see, is the way of the porcupine.

V. Comfort

Mémoires De Porc-épic is the title of Alain Mabanckou's most magisterial entertainment. No wonder he won all those prizes in 2006. The control of tone shows someone at the peak of his powers. He can be loose and discursive at will and yet turn on a dime and focus the narrative. He'll turn from literary disquisition to plot intricacies that leave you hanging on. You can't call it Congolese Gothic - even if tempted by the plot; you can't call it "magic realism" although he provokes you in passing. No, this is probing, searching and vital storytelling. And yet what do we have in this novel, now translated as Memoirs of a Porcupine? A porcupine unburdens his soul to a baobab tree recounting his life as a double nuisible - an animal double of a man who turns out to be very far from sympathetic, if not outright horrific.

Memoires De Porc-epic


Ostensibly the novel is about the mix of rumour, gossip, jealousy that can overtake a village, the perceived slights - the accusations that poverty and faulty biology can foster. It is also about the compulsion to help one's double no matter what. The premise is surreal but all the outlandish happenings are dealt with in such a matter-of-fact manner that the reader goes along. It just happens. Think about it, a porcupine is talking to that great African confidant, the baobab tree, a porcupine moreover who is perhaps trying to make sense of things, why is he alive when his double has died?

The novel examines matters of identity (see the double motif) and the impact of rumour in traditional societies. If people in the village start dying mysteriously, there must be someone slighted. This leads to tests and various rituals in the community (for example drinking of potions). You would file this under the banner of belief systems, the kind that ethnologists from the West study - they'll call it social anthropology. The porcupine lampoons this kind of cultural subjectivity. Yes the porcupine narrator, in his sophisticated mode turns to lampooning academics. There you have it: the winking eye of Alain Mabanckou, the tall tale you've become engrossed in, the mix of pointed commentary, biting satire, observation of tradition in consonance with modernity, and then the provocation. You're in the realm of the porcupine, and a wily one at that.

Memoirs of a Porcupine


The porcupine narrator is cowardly and needs to be suborned by his other self into violence. The missions accumulate, suspicion grows and disaster falls. Do these things actually happen? Or does he really tell the truth? Identity is refracted, myths are remade, language is made malleable, reflection, humour and violence intertwine. It's the literary hall of mirrors of Verre Cassé this time elevated into a universe that is Mabanckou's own, one that only intermittently relates to our own Milky Way. The novel is destined to be studied and dissected perennially. It goes far beyond Academy bait (it won the Prix Renaudot) into its own category. It was the intense experience of reading these 'memoirs' that led me to designate Alain Mabankcou as the porcupine of these notes.

The porcupine follows his own path. Like the squirrels he is related to, but with adorned with his protective spine, he is playful at once and prickly at the other. Aware that he needs to keep his wits around him, his is careful in his movements; a hard worker, he pays attention to his craft. He's a social creature engaging with his peers and is so comfortable in his skin that the moments of solitude never lead to loneliness.

VI. Musical

There is a certain rhythm to the writings of Alain Mabankcou, unhurried by default, it meanders at times, skipping occasionally or incorporating extra ideas but always returning to the beat like the best sebene. After two very successful novels (Verre Cassé and Memoirs de Porc-épic) largely embraced by the academy that played with all kinds of highbrow literary subtexts, he returned to the musical storytelling that characterized his debut.

Black Bazar, the last novel of his I've read, is akin to a stroll down the streets of Chateau Rouge. It's a return to the themes of Bleu Blanc Rouge a decade later. The emphasis isn't so much on the sapeurs this time as on the entire immigrant community that has asserted itself at the heart of Paris.

Black Bazar fessologue butt aestheticBlack Bazar fessologue butt aesthetic


The chief narrator is nicknamed Fessologue, which I'd rather translate as connoisseur of fine female derrieres rather than what I've seen elsewhere. Sidenote: would you translate Fessologue as Buttocks Man? Wouldn't you instead go for something more delicate: Butt Aesthetician perhaps, or Professor Gluteal Maximus? Digression on a digression: this is the dilemma an English translator faces with sharp and witty Francophone writers like Mabankcou and Patrick Chamoiseau, how does one unpack the playful language of their musical riffs. One hopes the translators come to capture the delicate humour of their knowing argot.



Fessologue then is a comic figure who verges on the tragicomic. A bon vivant sapeur with a heart of gold, he knows he is being used by his girlfriend - cuckolded even, as she has decamped to the Congo. Indeed he might even have been paying and caring for another man's child all these years. That betrayal is of no matter, he wants to do the right thing. The novel follows him his peripatetic attempts to reconcile the codes of his sapeur lifestyle (the constant need for different varieties of crocodile skin Weston shoes say) with the heavy responsibilities he has started to feel (making enough to send that Western Union transfer so that his daughter is cared for wherever she might be) and the pleading for his girlfriend's return. Like many of Mabankcou's characters he is no hero and is unreliable in all too recognizable ways. Hilarity ensues as one might expect. The complications do make indeed for a Black Bazaar.

Black Bazaar


Black Bazar even has a musical afterlife with a wonderful album and a tour of a collective of rumba and soukous greats inspired by the novel (lots of videos here). It is fitting since the novel's language felt alive and seemed to move to its own soundtrack.



I have only read half of Mabankcou' novels and, prolific as he is, there is much more to his catalog. Apparently also the poetry and essays loom large for some critics. He is increasingly busy these days enjoying his prime as it were. His works have been already been adapted on the stage and Hollywood must surely be next. Recently he has translated Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation into French, Bêtes sans patrie in a quite serendipitous meeting of minds. A highly adept wordsmith capturing the rhythms of another. The author of African Psycho - what with its vaguely aspirational homicidal street kid protagonist, was surely the right one to take on the child soldier.

His craft is undeniable and he is one of the best living African writers. I've found that most treatments of his work in English damn him with faint praise. I suppose this is because he writes in French and is pigeonholed accordingly. The obvious antidotes will be forthcoming as it seems the translations are now coming apace. I hope he is ready for the full glare of the attention that will surely be coming his way. I offer these running notes as a marker before the crowds arrive, an attempt at a reader's quiet appreciation. My only critique is that I have found more rewarding the novels that don't explicitly emphasize his literature professor guise. In these notes then, I have emphasized the works that have felt the most naturalistic.

I want to have a drink at the Credit a Voyage bar and exchange tall tales with its owner, l’Escargot Entêté. I want to share a few beers with mon pôte le porc-épic. I want to discuss exiled souls and the quality of wist in African life. I want to joke about the horde of Congolese barbers who loudly accost you when you step out of the metro station at Château d'Eau and contrast them with the lot at Château Rouge. What gives? Is it Brazzaville versus Kinshasa in the Parisian setting? I wonder about the soukous soundtrack that they seem to dance to as they gesticulate and beckon. I can only hope that my friend the porcupine continues weaving his tales. His latest novels are at the top of my wishlist. I'm going to savour them in the ever so fleeting moments when I can lose myself in a book. I'm digging the ways of the porcupine. A head nod in the direction of Alain Mabanckou.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Game of the Rough Beast

This is an open letter.
This is a game.
This is a poem.

To The Editors,
Dear Mr Reporter,
This is my second draft.

First I wrote to The Editors,
Then it was to you.
Now it's a different beast.

A parlour game in your honour.
I tried it out on a friend.
A political junkie, he likes toli.

He said it was rough,
That it needed work.
Bear with me, I'm wrangling with this thing.

I'm a child of the web.
First an adventure in hypertext
Now prose and some poetry.

William Butler Yeats.
Recall what he wrote:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"

This is part of a series.
I hope you'll play.
It's about The Second Coming

  1. Cut and Paste
  2. Cause and Effect
  3. The Game of the Rough Beast

Cut and paste


A game for you.
Simple instructions.
A test of comprehension.

Phase 1: Cut


Read the following passage.
It's from the New York Times
Some questions when you are done
In the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, thousands of Palestinians mourned the death of most of the Ghaliya family and wept as Huda Ghaliya, 7, kneeled to kiss her dead father before he, her mother and four siblings were buried. All were killed when the Israeli shell struck the beach where they were having a picnic. Huda had been playing nearby on the beach at the time. On Saturday, she asked mourners, "Please do not leave me alone."

The Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya of Hamas, who called the incident "a war crime," said he would adopt the girl. Later, Mr. Abbas, who called the incident "a dangerous, horrible, ugly crime against civilians," issued a presidential order adopting her.

The dead included Ali Ghaliya, 49, and his wife, Raisa, 35, and their children Ilham, 15, Sabreen, 7, Hanadi, 1, and Haihsam, 4 months. Mr. Ghaliya's first wife survived, said Ayyam Ghaliya, 20, one of Mr. Ghaliya's surviving children.

Questions (Phase 1)

  • Imagine that you wrote this passage, what title would you use when you submitted the article?
  • Imagine that you were the editor of this newspaper and received this article, what title would you use when you published it?
  • Bonus question: What page would you run this article on?

Phase 2: Paste


Read the following passage,
it's from the same article.
Some questions when you are done
Hamas fired at least 15 Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel on Saturday, ending a tattered 16-month truce with Israel, a day after eight Palestinians were killed on a Gaza beach, apparently by an errant Israeli shell.

Later on Saturday, in Ramallah, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced he had set July 26 for an unprecedented Palestinian referendum on the principles of a unified political platform agreed upon by Palestinian prisoners, which calls for a Palestinian state in pre-1967 boundaries alongside Israel.

Spokesmen for the ruling Hamas movement said they rejected the referendum decree and were studying their options, raising the prospect of further confrontation.

Questions (Phase 2)

  • Imagine that you wrote this passage, what title would you use when you submitted the article?
  • If you were the editor of this newspaper and received this article, what title would you use when you published it?
  • Bonus question. How well do these passages flow?

Cause and Effect


I made your second passage my first.
If you read the published article,
You'll no doubt see the reverse.

These were my friend's answers:
"Orphaned girl adopted by President"
"Random stuff about Palestine"

He saw two different stories:
"Death of family leads to end of truce"
"Hamas breaks cease-fire to distract attention from political confrontation with the President"

This was the published title:
Hamas Fires Rockets Into Israel, Ending 16-Month Truce
My friend then wrote "The perfidy of the press is one subject you should be used to"

It was a late night
The Wife saw me reading
Something in my face

"Why are you reading this Israel-Palestine stuff?"
Then I showed her your second passage,
I now call it the second coming.

"But they've buried it.
I would have never read past the beginning.
What page is it on? ... The whole thing is hidden..."

The Guidelines
They said:
Avoid politics

The Guidelines
They said:
Don't pick fights

Common sense,
Empirical evidence:
Steer clear of the Israel-Palestine matter

Still: I'm a journalist's son
You've given me an opening
I can't resist the temptation

The journalistic impulse
I seek out strange bedfellows
A student of editorial decisions

I'm in awe of what you've accomplished
You wrote the strongest fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs I can imagine.
You ought to be a hero.

You covered a textbook massacre
Wrote in the strongest language
And yet: the story was buried.

A skillful presentation
You reported eight deaths
You shouldn't be accused of mendacity

And yet: the story was buried.
It's lost. Misrepresented at best.
The Reporter and The Editors.

Intentional and artful rather than inept:
The page, the wording, the images, the placement.
And calculation: the title. Best left unread.

Below the fold.
The Reporter's byline.
Those delicately arranged passages

A terrain of uncertainty
Did The Editors ask you for balance?
Were there two separate stories?

Who chose the title?
And are you proud of it?
I'd rather be wrong.

I would be grateful if you could comment
On words hidden in plain sight.
I had the most dreadful time that night.

A young girl has been taught
An awful lesson in life:
Death, the school of hard knocks

I lost faith that night
At this brutish spectacle
What kind of world is this?

A perplexing script:
Business as usual,
There go those Palestinians again.

My first draft:
Your article published on Sunday June 11, 2006 in the New York Times newspaper is by my measure the most skillful piece of journalism in the past year. I applaud the care you have taken in your endeavours, the craft with which either yourself and your editors combined to tell a story. It is so skillful that I feel obliged to write to you.
My second draft:
Your article published on Sunday June 11, 2006 on page 6 in the New York Times newspaper is by my measure the most skillful piece of misdirection I have witnessed in journalism in the past year. The phrase intelligent design does not do justice to the craft with which either yourself and/or your editors combined to bury a story of outrage. I applaud the care you have taken in your endeavours. It is so skillful that I feel obliged to write to you. You should win a Pullitzer for it.
I attempted to play your game
Exercising editorial discretion
And tried my hand at misdirection

The rest of the article
The same clarity of structure
3 paragraphs to muddy, 3 paragraphs to disarm

The Reporter and The Editors
I haven't slept since that day.
I assume someone didn't sleep round your way

The cameras must have been rolling
Slightly different story the next day
Hmmm, a new reporter.

The Game of the Rough Beast


Cut and paste.
Cause and effect.
The logical structure of perfidy.

The Reporter
The Editors
Me

Integrity
Mendacity
Whimsy

A question
An exclamation
A period

Inquiry
Slander
A fine line

Cognitive dissonance
Misdirection
Fair and balanced

Paragraphs: 1-2-3
Paragraphs: 4-5-6
Jackson 5: "ABC. Easy as 1-2-3"

I want to think the best of you.
I want to think the worst of you.
This is all a big muddle.

I want to think the best of The Reporter.
I want to think the worst of The Editors.
Resistance or deception? I'm unmoored, bereft.

Israel
Palestine
[ this space intentionally left blank ]

The beach at Beit Lahiya.
The soul of a reporter.
The policies of The Editors.


"From Gaza into Israel"
"On a Gaza beach"
First movement and action, then the passive, a mere location.

"Hamas... launched at least 15 Qassam rockets"
"An errant Israeli shell"
First actor then action, then the passive. There's no actor.

Curtis Mayfield spoke the truth
We lost him, I miss him
This is what he sang:
They're all political actors... but they all know
If there's a hell below
We're all going to go
The logical structure of perfidy.
An awful reversal of causality.
The strange architecture of misdirection.

Normally effect follows cause.
Outrage is directed at cause,
And understanding attaches itself to effect.

In the human infrastructure of misdirection,
Cause follows effect,
And cause is itself an effect.

In those middle pages of your newspaper,
Cause is buried by effect,
And outrage attaches itself to effect

All that remains is effect.
Your byline, your story, the passive tense
The Editors, The Gray Lady

Back to front, the story is buried.
Eight dead bodies replaced by abstraction
Grim reality meets editorial necessity

I can't work out this puzzle.
I don't know which facts to dwell on.
I like to play this puzzle at night.

I don't know how to order these paragraphs.
Cut and paste. Cause and effect.
I don't want to play the game.

Do you sleep at night Mr Reporter?
Do you think The Editors sleep at night?
I rewrite your article at night

Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
Her family is dead.
They died on the beach in front of her.

It was a picnic. On the beach.
A shell.
They are all dead.

She cried.
They died.
I cried.

I suspect you cried
Did The Editors cry?
And were the cameras rolling?

Did the world cry?
Errant Israeli shell
15 Qassam rockets

June 11, 2006
Page 6 of the New York Times
The title, your story: buried.

The beach, the picnic, the shell
The cameras, the family: the coffins
The rockets, the funeral, the story

June 12, 2006
Page 8 of the New York Times
New title, the story: gasping.

Night. Sleep. Day
Black. White. Gray.
The Reporter. The Editors. The Gray Lady.

New York Times.
Steven Erlanger.
Hamas Fires Rockets Into Israel, Ending 16-Month Truce


Haeretz.
The spin.
Peretz: Gaza beach blast may have internal Palestinian cause

New York Times
George Azar. Politics as Theatre.
Errant Shell Turns Girl Into Palestinian Icon

This is what I read that night
This is what I saw
This is the fog of war

Do you know each other?
Do your editors know the other editors?
This is such a muddle.

My original title: Abject mendacity of New York Times Editors
My draft title: On misdirection and injustice
My published title: The Game of the Rough Beast

I wanted to avenge her.
Instead I wrote a parlour game.
It is my only act of resistance.

I want to stare directly at the heart of darkness.
I hope I won't flinch.
I don't trust myself.

I wonder if you've come close to the rough beast.
I think you've come close to the rough beast.
Have you come close to the rough beast?

I want to know what he looks like.
I don't want to know what he looks like.
I know he's there.

I can only hope that one day you will do a follow-up story on her loss.
I can only hope that one day you will do a follow-up story on the Hamas shelling.
A follow-up story with the same editors.

I can only hope you'll play the game again
The game of cut and paste
The game of cause and effect

Then maybe I'll sleep at night
Then maybe I'll know the rough beast
Then maybe I'll make my own accomodations

I have only my pen to wield
I wonder if you've read this far
I hope you haven't read this far

He is close
I can hear him
A neighbour's house is on fire

I hear her cries.
I see her face.
I play my music
"It's 2am when the party's over
All I wanna do, all I wanna do
I wanna be with you"
Cut and paste.
Cause and effect.
The logical structure of perfidy.

Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
Her family is dead.
They died on the beach in front of her.

I want to avenge her.
Bring them back to the picnic.
Maybe it is better this way.

What kind of injustice is this?
Who is writing the script?
And who is editing it?

What are the names of your editors?
Did you have an editor at all?
I prefer to know them as The Editors.

Let's hear it from the poets
William Blake: Til we have built Jerusalem
William Butler Yeats: Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Yeats's first cut,
A quotable sort
Everyone remembers this:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
But it's about The Second Coming
The story written afterwards
And everyone forgets it:
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born?
My thesis as it is:
In the School of Hard Knocks
Things Fall Apart beats Heart of Darkness

More practical, bear with me.
Heart of Darkness: Angola, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Congo, Chile, Somalia, El Salvador
Things Fall Apart: Soviet Union, Nigeria...

Try it again, your neck of the woods.
Heart of Darkness: 9/11, Baghdad, Al Zarqawi, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Haditha...
Things Fall Apart: Katrina, Enron, Abramoff, Cunningham...

When I read your article
I was reminded of the poem
"A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun"

I seek a comfort suite
And pray for peace and quiet
The cement of my society

To be out of sight
To live out of mind
A chance to recover

I try to stare at the sun
I want to look into his eyes
Confront him head on:

The rough beast.
Observe his contours
Resist nostalgia

I hope I don't flinch.
I want to cover my eyes
I fall asleep

Help me, Mr Reporter.
Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
The rough beast, The Editors

This thing's a puzzle.
I'm tired of the game.
Where are The Editors?

I wake up on the beach at Beit Lahiya
Where are you, Mr Reporter?
And who are The Editors?

The rough beast lies next to me.
William Blake: Among those dark Satanic Mills
William Butler Yeats: Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born

Yours sincerely.
Sincerely yours.
I'd like some answers.



The Game of the Rough Beast
The Reporter and The Editors
The beach at Beit Lahiya

The Second Coming
The Ghaliya family lost four members less than two years ago when an Israeli Army shell hit their farm in Beit Lahiya. Then, as now, the army said it was shelling to try to stop Palestinian fire into Israel.
The Rough Beast

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Publication

Some good news, which I'll announce by paraphrasing Public Enemy's Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos

I got a letter from the university the other day
I opened it up and read it
It said: "We wanna publish."
They wanted me for digital culture or whatever
Picture me giving a damn, I said "Hell yeah".
Unlike Chuck D's response to the US Government and its Army, I was elated that Cultural Sensitivity in Technology was selected to be published in Best of Technology Writing 2006 by the University of Michigan Press in its new imprint Digital Culture Books. It took a few months, as these publishing cycles go, but I now have the first ISBN associated with my name.

Best of Technology Writing 2006


There's further reason to cheer since acquisition editor, Alison Mackeen, noted that mine was the only blog post that was selected for the volume; the other contributors are mostly journalist or academic types. The web is the great leveler and I am greatful that my musings can appear along with the heavy hitters of traditional media and technology. It is rather like the way that The Humanity Critic can lie in the same folder as Malcolm Gladwell in my Bloglines subscriptions and each are equally appreciated.

Over the past year there has been interest expressed in various books of toli. It turns out that if you write as much as I sometimes do, there'll be an audience for you once you find your voice (at least on those days when the stream of consciousness tendancies are curbed). In this respect I am pleased that it is the cultural sensitivity piece that is the first to hit Gutenberg's press because it was written in a personal yet controlled voice, and I was able to navigate the tension between an entertainment and a focused monograph. The folks I like to read cross the spectrum from dry technical exposition to the satirical. One needs to cater to both education and whimsy hence my writing tends to run the gamut from small things to big ideas.

The time that was spent in editing back and forth and wrangling my conversational web style into something fit for the printed page was instructive. I am a ruthless editor of others but don't normally submit to that impulse in my own writing. Still I don't envy editors and I have renewed appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears it takes to actually make a reasonable book. In any case, I revised and expanded the article, throwing in a few bits about the human factor, the web and irreverence. Do check out the book; as befits its title, it contains lots of great writing about technology and its implications. Eminently readable and stimulating, I'll be mining it going forward and will be pointing out some of the food for thought in it.

I was asked to come up with a tagline for the article, my take:
Everything is local.
Now I have to get serious about The Pitch. Oh and I should get back to writing in this joint.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Nine Dollar Vibe

I was a charter subscriber of Vibe magazine; Quincy Jones was quite the salesman and saw a budding market for a publication on a music and culture that was becoming ubiquitous. Up until 2000 or so, the writing was fairly sharp although it appeared that the magazine was becoming a forum for a so-called "hip-hop lifestyle". The commercial imperative is keenly felt in the USA. Still at $9 or so to renew, I persevered with the magazine even as I would get increasingly irked (and last year they started an offshoot Vibe Vixens which, other than fulfilling an eye candy and titillation quotient, was similarly vacuous). Quincy incidentally cashed out some time ago (like Berry Gordy, he knew exactly when the gig was up). When we moved to a new apartment last year I allowed the subscription to lapse. For the past few months I've been picking up a copy in bookstores and flipping through in the hope of finding a reason to get back on the bandwagon, $9 is a such a low threshold. Sadly enough this email from my archives is still relevant.

To: mail@vibe.com
Subject: September 1999 6th Anniversary issue

Don't start a piece titled "We're on a mission" with a clear error in the second sentence: as we all know "Feels Good" was on Tony Toni Toné's second album (The Revival), not on their first (the aptly named Who?). Or were you over-excited by your sixth "Anniversary" (a song on their third album, Sons of Soul)...

Not to be pedantic though, the appeal of Vibe in its first couple of years was its incisive and informed writing about a fairly wide range of music. I can't help but comment that that aspect of the magazine has been overshadowed of late. A couple of recent issues were clearly devoid of content; I kept turning the page looking for something, anything, and ended at the end of the magazine.

On the other hand, it's obvious that you are a success given the amount of your pages devoted to advertisements, fashion and celebrity eye candy so maybe I should shut up. Or maybe I won't: consider this a plea for you to get back to some sharp writing and keep on your toes; there's still some good music out there. No more puff pieces.

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, For now.

A concerned subscriber
I was ignored the first time and have no illusions that anyone will even care that they've lost my annual $9 contibution especially when others seem to tolerate 3 pages of marginal music commentary amongst 180 pages of advertisements and "lifestyle" bluster. Still I'm a little saddened.

nine dollar vibe


These are the remnants of my Vibe magazine collection. Curiously enough, this is all that survived my last apartment move (at least these are what are in the boxes that I've opened). As you can see these remnants are all eye candy. You have my word that the music reporting was as interesting as the covers. The Maxwell, D'Angelo and Erykah Badu issues were fabulous as was the Chris Rock piece. As regards eye candy the two Toni Braxton issues are collectors items, Toni, Toni Toni! was the title of the middle one. The Foxy Brown, Eve, J. Lo and the two Mary J. Blige pieces were a mixed bag, the music was not as incisive but there was a focus on the culture. The Beyoncé and TLC issues were elegaic while the R. Kelly and Lil Kim bits were pure scandal showcasing the eternal struggle between the sacred and the profane in the music that I love. But that was then, this is now; now there is only eye candy. Thus my hommage to the end of an era and my boycott of the nine dollar Vibe.

It is apparent that best writing on music is now to be found in blogs or various discussion forums. I am old-fashioned enough to like settling down with a good magazine and the occasional meaty book on music or the arts. There are still interesting magazines on literature and the like, why not music? I guess I'm going to have to write my own books since no one wants to cater to my admittedly intense predilection for music.

In all seriousness, what are people reading these days? And if it's not on paper, who should I be adding to my Bloglines' subscriptions?

This is the first part of the Boycott Day Trinity: The Father.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Head Nods - Toli Turns One

The toli turns one year old today... Hence some anniversary musings and some head nods...

"The 15 people for whom I'm famous are a very diverse lot and pull me in lots of directions."

"Koranteng is also a little bit nuts, which is appealing." - The Guv'nor

"I should probably only listen to one voice at a time."

"I'm all about the synthesis; I welcome the cacophony." - Tessa Lau

"novel-length diatribes" - Sam Ruby?

"Koranteng provides an explanation, a, er, interesting powerpoint and further links." - David Lobb

"novella length efforts" - Mr Feinberg

"on the written page you are so ... prolific .. that it's sometimes a bit overwhelming" - Justin

"verbose is the word... 'you need an editor' is the comment" - self

"you are obviously interested in writing... I guess writers are a different breed and have to satisify their muses" - Aaron Reed

"We need an emoticon that represents 'nod in agreement'." - JP Morgenthal

Toli Turns One


So I started posting toli at this location a year ago and it has been quite a trip. Some statistics: 115 posts, a little over 2 a week although I've picked up the pace of late to make up for that 2 month existential crisis. 37 pieces on technology toli, 29 on musical toli, 26 on African toli (although one post covered the ground of 15 lengthy posts), 24 on political toli (although this was mostly tangential, I'm not normally overtly political), 20 on literary toli (literature has been scarce of late, something that should be remedied), the rest has been a miscellany of toli of life, whimsy and more including 12 on life in Cambridge which have been very heartfelt. If you add everything up you'll recognize that I very seldom write monographs and, even when I do, I bring a lot of other perspectives to the table.

The archetypal toli intervention consists of snap judgement, changing the frame, case studies and arguments by analogy. When weaving these strands together, I tend to play with which aspects I emphasize and of late it has been more fun to go with the satirical parables to make my points. Sadly I've become more verbose and perhaps this is because I haven't been submitting to the discipline of an editor or a deadline. I'll try to remedy that and aim for shorter cuts; I do realize you don't have to explore absolutely every angle of a thing. As I've been told, you can easily verge into "that stream of consciousness effect and Proust" (thanks for that polite intervention by the way Justin). Also I might play with the layout of the blog to make things a little more approachable.

If I go by del.icio.us, it's the rich web application trail that first drew people and my writing on technology and its effects continues to tickle a certain audience perhaps because it's a little different from the norm. The music intrigues a few; if you vibe with Abbey Lincoln, cook with Rokia Traoré and are musically obsessed, you will strike a chord. Cross-posting at blogcritics also brought an audience my way.

A surprise to me is that per Furl, the most viewed post is about a blanket of soul, a post which actually got no feedback. A little disconcerting but that is ranked by views; by contrast the most bookmarked at Furl are what I expected the Gmail and DHTML architecture bit, my 3rd State of the DOM address (everything is better in version 3.0) and Cultural Sensitivity in Technology which I'm quite proud of. I wish Blogger would give some statistics so I could do some metrics.

[update] I had mislabelled some posts... It turns out that the most viewed post by far, according to Furl, is Merlene Ottey - Ageless Wonder, in which I confessed a crush on that Jamaican regal goddess of athletics which just goes to show that sex sells. Or perhaps it's a commentary about those who use Furl.

I do love music and have a stack of reviews and playlists to share and I'll be sure to repeat the Toli Music Awards in a few months.

Next most popular per Furl is that visual introduction to Ghana. That, I can understand: a photo essay is easier to digest than the 10,000 word rant it was meant to augment although that latter post has been a manifesto of sorts for those interested in Africa and the journalistic impulse. Thus the writings on Africa also tend to be very popular. The travel journalism and the more heartfelt personal writing also gain some kudos from some corners. On the whole though, most of my writing has struck a chord with someone, somewhere and, to the extent that I get feedback in whatever forum, that is a real pleasure.

Of course, I was writing long before this blog, it's a hobby that clears my mind as I mull things over. Writing feeds my curiousity and inquisitiveness. It informs my outlook on life. Still it could be said that I had previously been hoarding my jaundiced prose out of some sense of timidity. You really want to be ready before the scrutiny of others turns on you, just ask Howard Dean about premature exposure of inchoate thinking. Even though the web isn't quite like a political campaign, there's still a leap you have to take to start to engage the world and think aloud in public conversation which is what this blog has been about. A year later, I'm glad I joined the conversation.

me-pretend-scholar

Head Nods


If you've interacted with me in the past few months, in person, by phone, instant messaging or email, and apart from the one withering email, the conversation would have inevitably turned to head nods. I've been in such an elated mood of late that I'm all about reaching out and making connections and, when doing that, I nod my head.

I like head nods. I find that we don't do enough of them. Head nods, like hugs, give strength and comfort. These are strange days, full of heartache and the incongruous, the whole world needs some nod heads. There's even a song and dance about head nods that I'll relate at the end of this post. It turns out also that my last appreciation post was a long time ago, about Martin Geddes whose Telepocalypse is still end-to-end perfection.

In no particular order then, here are some long-overdue head nods.

I'm in such a prolific phase right now that I'm a little scared I'll burn out. Working through code, designs and architecture is easy these days, and writing of all sorts is pouring out of me. Indeed my cup runneth over with product ideas, book proposals and the like. You could do worse than grab me for half an hour and pick my brain on any subject matter. Curiously, one of the reasons for this tsunami of creativity is a little matter of a chair, thus I'll start with a head nod to the folks at Humanscale who designed the Freedom Chair that I bought as my birthday present to myself this year (I wonder if the name was an allusion to Freedom Fries). It's the most expensive purchase I've made in a long while (I'm quite frugal) and given how much I paid, I've convinced myself it's worth it. Let me shill: "the chair has transformed my life". Seriously, it happens to be the most comfortable place in my wretched bachelor pad (more comfortable even than the bed or those utilitarian prison futons). Thus you'll find me on it at 5 am and late at night; visitors are surprised that I sit in the chair when I greet them. I'm sure there are other reasons for the creative spark but the chair deserves a head nod.

me-kente


To Justin Grunau, a great friend, linguist, book lover, ardent opinion-monger, technologist and prolific writer - also a late adopter to blog/wiki/social bookmarking world, but my goodness slow down. You're my sanity preservation lifejacket. And those zingers: "Is Charlie Brown fantasizing this time or did Lucy really let him kick the football for the first time in 30 years?"

To Monsieur Feinberg, dogeared Liquid Preller, duct tape wielder and "polish plumber" of technology. You've been adopted into the toli family, bro. I want to hear the sound of Floot Loops.

To the ever-insightful James Governor, keep instigating at Redmonk, maybe you'll get the good guys at these companies to stop the madness and "think about the children", those long-forgotten users. Sidenote: why is there so much testosterone in the technology industry? Even that disaster named Carly was all testosterone and no substance, why is that? It's all warlike rhetoric. Can't we all just get along? We need to get out of Deadwood. By the way you never did say whether you minded being called The Guv'nor of Redmonk, the cockneyism is intended as a term of endearment but not everyone likes name calling. I don't want my toli to be perceived like Dubya's: always giving nicknames... Anyway head nod at you, Guv. Oh and yes Maggie Thatcher deserves a savaging too and I will oblige eventually but how's this gotcha for a start.

To Tessa Lau, fellow pragmatist and skilled artisan of the Dark Matter of Technology. The IBM tribe has a gem in your Glue-layer Leadership and Unbridled Excellence (GLUE), machine-learning bravado and structure-infering hackery. I should stop gushing but I won't, I'd rather tilt my head askew and nod. Keep leading the way.

To Uche Ogbuji, I was reading something from your blog to The Girlfriend and she couldn't tell what you wrote apart from my writing. "You guys are so similar." She worries that when we eventually meet, we'll have a fatal personality clash because the shared aesthetic and interests seem too good to be true. And I will review Common at some point even though you did it all for me. A technology, Okayplayer, West-African immigrant head nod to you.

To James Fallows, many thanks for the head nod and encouragement, it came at a most opportune time. I'll be keeping my mid-Atlantic toli going and will strive to continue to "deftly walk the technology/culture line". We should talk about Kente, Guinea Fowl, and Grasscutter (Akrantie) and your time in Busia's Ghana (I too have tales about Bolgatanga). Did you know that Ghanaians won't eat imported chicken these days? We should also talk technology. I was reading one of your Techno-files pieces in The Times (from a few months ago, I'm so behind), Finally, Sisyphus, There's Help for those Internet Forms, I thought you'd appreciate my take on these things: the folktales, B-movies, coinages and thoughts on bleach.

To Jackie Malone who got me to moonlight at Inside Lotus (which I've sadly been neglecting) and whose encouragement, enthusiasm and kind words about my writing were so liberating. I'm still working on the pitch for IBM Press, O'Reilly and Wired. And yes I do need an editor. I hope you're enjoying your retirement. As you know, I love tomorrow.

To Jon Udell, I'm enjoying this great conversation we're participating in on technology and its effects. From the big picture to the little things that matter, you lay it out with clarity and verve. Let's do dinner at some point when you pass round this way. A head nod from the back of the bus.

To Hanna Russo, Rob Weir and Margaret O'Connell, my Axis of Empathy throughout my professional career. The best-kept secrets at Lotus, glad to see you blowing up IBM Software Group, God knows it needs some manhole explosions.

To Ethan Zuckerman, so much to say. Well we'll be having our beers shortly... Thanks for prompting the Chris Lydon connection. My heart's in Accra too. A head nod from North Kaneshie.

To Sam Ruby, you atomic radical simplifier you, a head nod: +1

To the powerful Richard Schwartz, let's do this crypto thing.

To James Snell: REST By Example. A Show Me The Code head nod to you.

To Mark Pilgrim, your groove made me start this blogging toli. I'm sure I'm not the first to ask, but how about diving back into blogs now that the skunkworks of monkeyed grease is done? The Unloved HTML button and other Folktales is only an African version of your Headers and soul.

To Martin Romano now at Bowstreet, the unsung hero of Bleached Unobtrusive DOM Scripting (BUDS) and many other theatrics from Freelance Graphics, to eSuite to K-station, who built rich web applications before they were called bleach. I still have the emails where the visions were laid out and will publish them for historians of technology to ponder prescience and innovation. I stand on your broad shoulders and nod my head to you. Regards to Sue and the baby.

To Chis Anderson, the Long Tail is where it's wired. I was very flattered about you calling this joint "deep but beautifully written". I don't quite know about the "clearly a genius of some sort" characterization; that's a hard standard to live up to, but I'll take all the praise I get, "of some sort" being the operative phrase. Oh, and I'll be laying "The Pitch" on you at the end of the year if my writing keeps on track.

To Noel Weichbrodt, a Barely Legal Programmer, I appreciate what you do and with style. Plus you hipped me to Cobb thus an Afro head nod to you. And with The Wife blogging hmmm, watch out.

To Sokari Ekine, Paa Kwesi Imbeah, Kenya Hudson, Akinyi Arunga, Bubu, Ory, Kwasi, Afromusing and all the others writing about Africa. The sound of your voices gives me great comfort.

To all my friends at Lotus who have made work mostly a matter of play from GPG to eSuite, to K-station to WebSphere Portal to ODC to Forms to Workplace and beyond. Elena, Chris, Lily, Ping, Willie, Angela, Adam, Joyce, Paul, MaryEllen, Bill, Mary, Eric, Asima and the list goes on and let's not forget Theresa who didn't make it but who lives on for all of us. You've all been a source of strength and learning, it continues to be a pleasure. When I recount to others that my experience of software development with you has one of collaboration with historians, linguists, dancers, physicists, musicians, artists and only the rare computer scientist many can't fathom that I am talking about the same profession. And that's the point, good software engineers are not fungible. It will be 10 years at Lotus/IBM on Sunday and I'm proud of what we've built. I hope we can stand up and take credit for our achievements and continue pushing collaboration, communities and ultimately, cool and usable software. We are fighting the Good Fight Against Technical Arteriosclerosis ©, unthinking careerism, the Boltons of the world and rank bureaucracy because we recognize the primacy of those who who use our products.
I am no one's "find". I was raised by a village called Lotus.

To some of my ever quotable fellow travellers in technology pragmatism: Coté, Reginald Braithwaite-Lee, Bill de hóra, Ryan Tomayko, Les Orchard, Mark Baker, Bob Haugen, Robert Sayre, David Lobb, Phil Wainewright, Adam Bosworth, JP Morganthal and others, Rest well and nod your heads.

A belated head nod to the View Sourcerer in Chief, Joe Gregorio. I point everyone to the RESTful web you're weaving.

To T.V. Raman, Mark Birbeck and Aaron Reed, the XForms dream draws nearer... I'll stay on the case. A distilled pattern head nod to you.

To my latest IBM connections... Dale Schultz, I'm with you in the fight against the curse of the ampersand, the hyphenated parable, the mangling of euro symbols or Rokia Traoré, a globalized head nod to you. Chris Ferris, rant on you standards natterer you, Bill Higgins, grassroots pragmatism is the thing, let's do this and David Singer, I'm with you.

On a personal note, to Sozi and Meriel who are Philly bound, you are a few of my favourite things. A cheese-steak laden head nod to you.

To "Ennis", it's so hard to believe you're not Ghanaian. And deconstructing politics and strange bedfellows like you do is a rare skill. I'm digging Sepia Mutiny. Have some waatche and a head nod on me.

To Frances who brought my voice back. See you in the building. Lights Out.

To the two Mikes, forever nodding.

To Kukua, Kweku, Ebo, Zai, Kobi, Rita, Dela, Sanyade, Russ and the rest of London crew, you've got soul.

To the Boston crew, as Digable Planets said last week, "Beantown is Red Hot".

To the French crew, on dit quoi?

To the two Brians, Stout and Sangudi, friends who keep me on the straight and narrow. Two head nods apiece.

To my family, I revel in the joy of small things and our still waters do indeed run deep. I hope my toli lets you know what I get up to when I forget to call.

And to my favourite Historian of Science who will be joining me in matrimony, a loving head nod. I'm so excited to no longer be Mr Flinchy. Bitter Roots was great accomplishment, next stop Oprah's Book Club, West Nile Blues, Atomic Junction and Berkeley next year. I can't wait.

And finally a big head nod to all who I haven't mentioned, the Readers Of The Lost Toli. It seems there are over 100 of you in Bloglines. Extrapolating a little, Bloglines is said to have 40% of the aggregator market share, that means that perhaps 250 people have been tolerating my meandering musings. That is well over the 15 I had expected. Heck, Blogshares even values this joint at $6,807.57, maybe I'll cash in and buy myself some Schnapps. Thank you all for pulling me in the directions you do, and helping me find my voice. I'll try to be more focused in the future, and briefer. Head nods all around.

Nod Your Head To This


And for the obligatory musical coda...

One of my favourite songs is Nod your Head to This by the Kings of Swing (full lyrics).

There was a dance that we used to do to this song in London clubs circa 1990-91, which was something like the tilted heads in Michael Jackson's Thriller video crossed with the robot in Herbie Hancock's Rockit joint if you can imagine such a thing. Picture if you will a dancefloor having a case of collective hip-hop epilepsy. Fire up your file-shaing app and download, this is yet another track in the long tail of music that record companies are ignoring...
And Yes, I'm Comin Fully Charged,
Equipped And Packed
To Make Your Head Bob And Weave
And Swing Forth And Back
It's Like A Tyson Bout
And This Is Main Event
And I'm Electrifyin The Minds
Of All The Ladies And Gents
Cold Swingin Things
The Way It's Supposed To Be
To Make You Nod Your Head,
Yo, Simultaneously
To A Groove That Makes You Move
And Keeps You In Sync
Just Like You're Tappin Your Feet,
Yo, You Do Not Think
About What You're Doin,
But You Can't Resist
The Kings Of Swing Is In The House,
And Hey Yo, Nod Your Head To This

Nod Your Head To This
Nod Your Head To This

It Sounds Funky

me sleepy head nod

Nod Your Head To This
Nod Your Head To This

My Toli Sounds Funky


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