Saturday, July 31, 2004

Rising from my sick bed

Blame my blogging-hiatus on the sinus infection that has afflicted me for the past 3 weeks. The 2 week course of antibiotics helped but I have essentially been bed-bound, congested, groggy and generally out of sorts. Of course, my difficulties with pills didn't make this an easy time...Unable or unwilling to read, watch tv or surf the web, I was lucky to have a lot of food and drinks in the house to keep me going. As far as the workfront goes, thankfully our office was closed this past week due to the Democratic National Convention - of which I only caught maybe 10 minutes a day such was my headache - and so it was the 'work at home' routine.

Anyway hopefully I'm over this... I have lots to say and have gotten lots of feedback about my blogging debut... There'll be more toli on culture, technology and the like..

Street Lit, Pulp Fiction and The Worst Novel Ever Written

The Post has an article about "street lit" - the bawlderized black pop "literature" that has become popular if not increasingly financially successful these days:New Books In the Hood

For good or for bad, street lit is eating up the African American book world at the moment. Walk into the Karibu bookstore in Prince George's Plaza and you'll see. It used to be there were just one or two small shelves of "street life" books. Now there's a whole section.

The titles of the paperbacks pretty much say it all: "No Way Out" by Zachary Tate, "The Last Kingpin" by Relentless Aaron, "Payback's a Bitch" by Marcus Spears, "Thugs and the Women Who Love Them" by Wahida Clark, "Bad Girlz" by Shannon Holmes and countless more. In the same way rap music muscled melodious soul tunes off the charts, street lit is altering the equation of African American publishing.

What is a street lit novel? The telltale signs usually include a shut-your-mouth title, straightforward sentences, vast amounts of drugs, sex and rap music and varying degrees of crime and punishment. An exemplary tale is a mixture of foul language, flying bullets, fast cars, a flood of drugs, fallen angels and high-priced frippery. It venerates grams over grammar, sin over syntax, excess over success.

Street lit, says Karibu co-owner Simba Sana, "is the hottest thing going right now."

The paperback fiction bestseller list at Karibu -- a local five-store chain featuring books by and about African Americans -- is dominated by street lit, aka urban lit, gangsta lit or hip-hop fiction. "Do or Die" by Washingtonian Darren Coleman is at the top, followed by Keisha Ervin's "Me and My Boyfriend," Thomas Long's "A Thug's Life" and "A Project Chick," the second novel by Nikki Turner. Karibu stores have sold nearly 3,000 copies of Turner's first novel, "A Hustler's Wife." [...]

First, the 'Iceberg'

The new street lit is not to be confused with the classic naturalistic style of Richard Wright or James Baldwin, some critics say. That would be a little like comparing P. Diddy to Duke Ellington. Street lit lacks the literary ambition -- and the power -- of great writing. Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and Nichelle D. Tramble are literary fiction writers -- in the tradition of Wright and Baldwin -- who write about the streets. Their novels, however, are not street lit.

Street lit has always been more of a social than a literary movement. It can be traced to 1969 when Iceberg Slim, aka Robert Beck, published "Pimp," a memoir of his professional life. He was born in Chicago in 1918 and lived most of his life in the Midwest. Between the ages of 18 and 42, he worked as a procurer of prostitutes. He did some jail time.

While in solitary confinement in 1960, he decided to go straight. When he was released, he moved to California and wrote his memoir. He went on to write a lot of books, including "Trick Baby" and "Death Wish." The books were groundbreaking in their real-life, close-to-the-bone accounts of life, sex and death on the streets. And they were packed with urban patois, such as using "jasper" for lesbian and "macking" for pimping. Iceberg Slim died in 1992.

In the 1970s, Donald Goines picked up the thread. A former heroin addict and chronic convict, Goines produced in short order a slew of books including "Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie" and "Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp." The books came along with the rise of blaxploitation movies and hip-hop music. For a while, street lit fell by the wayside, but it returned in the late '90s, with a bullet, when Sister Souljah published "The Coldest Winter Ever."

Today's street lit has its champions. Many of the novels have a moral, says Mackey. "In most of them it's about people who have made wrong choices," she says. "The authors are making a conscious decision to say these people made bad choices and you don't have to. There is a moral fiber running through the whole book."

Plus, she says, "There is a blessing in all of this: African Americans are reading. They've picked up a book and they are reading."

Poet Sterling Plumpp, who taught at the University of Illinois for 30 years, says that contemporary hip-hop writing "is the most inventive thing happening to the language in a long time."

He believes it is more successful in fiction and poetry than in rap lyrics. "I'm not sure the music is there," he says.

Eventually, Plumpp says, great writers may emerge. "What you have is a very difficult situation for a lot of young African Americans," Plumpp says. "They did not inherit the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois or Frederick Douglass in terms of literacy."

But, Plumpp continues, these young folks have life experiences that they want to express. "They have almost developed an African American language that is as estranged from the educated African American world as it is from the white world."

Street lit, he says, "should be promoted."
I think Bill Cosby would disagree with the above statement but it does have a utilitarian grain to it.
  1. If more people (and especially black people) are reading, then surely that is a good thing - there has been a bit of a todo of late about the declining numbers of people reading
  2. Popular culture does not need to address the academy; it has a life of its own. Tarantino for example has mined the shlock of b-movies to wonderful effect and we are all the better for it. Similarly some of the great writers of the past century made a living working in the pulp fiction genre.
  3. It not so much that street lit is at best a guilty pleasure. I have found more literary verve in Bill Marshall's slender novel Bukom about the slum of that name ["We are going to make folks in Bukom realise that I Ataa Kojo, and my children are forward looking. We are going to make folks envy us. We are going to build a whiteman's toilet in this house and the neighbours are going to come here and beg us to use it"] than in say Ayi Kwei Armah's entire oeuvre of weighty historical tomes on slavery like say The Healers. Similarly, and not to be so obscurantist, I'll take John Grisham's The Client or even Terri McMillan's Waiting To Exhale over Thomas Pynchon's V any day - literary pretensions be damned.
In the same vein, the most annoying (nay, the absolute worst book I've ever read) was The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. I mention this as a public service announcement - avoid at all costs.

This must be the novel parodied by Martin Amis in The Information: the novel circulated to critics which induces severe headaches, nausea and worse to anyone who begins it, what with its circle of 8 unreliable narrators.

After 150 pages, I literally wanted to punch the author. After finishing the book - I unfortunately feel obligated to finish every book I start - exquisite torture was the only appropriate punishment.

The sad thing is that I've loved every other book by him. It goes to show that technically-adept writing without purpose can be a lethal thing. Let's have more "street lit", especially with soul!

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Thursday, July 22, 2004

A life measured in ounces

The last part of the LA Times series on living with pennies concerns AIDS. Much ink has already been spent on the issue, but these are issues serious enough that constant reminders are welcome. A life measured in ounces

A bottle of Dark and Lovely hair gel in hand, Kassim Issa pushes his withered body down a dirt path through Nairobi's biggest slum, peddling a few ounces at Mama Washington's and other tumbledown salons.

For Issa, Dark and Lovely is life. The 20-cent profit from one bottle can pay for an injection to dull the chronic pain of AIDS. Two bottles can pay for a hospital visit. And selling 10 means he can afford a chest X-ray.

"I am fighting every day to stay alive," Issa said. "Every day I live, I win."

Winning means another day of difficult choices — a dinner of bitter greens or medication. Issa can buy one or the other, but usually not both. Without the right food and drugs, it's hard to find a better job. On top of that, drugs that make him stronger also make him hungry for food he can't afford.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where half the people survive on less than a dollar a day, life is a struggle for food, clothing and shelter. Issa and 28 million other Africans stricken with HIV and AIDS face the extra burden of finding and paying for treatment.

Nearly 7% of Kenya's 32 million people are living with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. The epidemic claims the lives of 700 Kenyans each day. Across the continent, 3 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses last year. The U.N. reported last week that life expectancy has dropped as low as 33 years in some African countries, largely due to AIDS.

The disease has decimated the ranks of teachers and shuttered schools. It has wiped out subsistence farmers, slashing food production. It has taken mothers and fathers, creating millions of orphans.

Years ago, when Issa was healthy, he brought home about $100 a month from his job selling Dark and Lovely shampoos, gels and hair straighteners.

The salesman also brought home HIV. Three generations have suffered because of it. His wife is dead. Because he cannot care for his 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, the children live with their grandmother in a distant village.

For Issa, the disease created its own twisted logic of survival. To qualify for free doses of the most important medication — antiretroviral drugs — from the aid group Doctors Without Borders, Issa needed his immune system cell count to drop to dangerous levels.

He prayed to get sicker. In a few weeks, he lost 40 pounds from his slender 6-foot-2 frame. His cell count plummeted. His prayers were answered.

"I could live a little longer," he said.
Some comments about this series and others of its ilk. The stylistic criticism is that the writing can be a little breathy at times and perhaps there's the occasional sense of the exotic - of that poor, deprived other. There is always that tempation for the journalist, even the third world journalist, to fall on slightly overripe prose.

Having spent a large part of my childhood in newsrooms, I can remember my mother constantly arguing with her journalist colleagues about this issue of tone, and facile characterization; she worked hard to make sure that reporting and editorial line went deeper than surface. Suprisingly this seemed to be more of an issue at the BBC (Focus on Africa) than back at the Daily Graphic in Accra. Perhaps its also a matter of medium - tv trumps radio which trumps print; the cinematic is the medium of our time even with the onset of the web. There are trade-offs between spending the time to capture the complexity of a story as opposed to drawing broad strokes with an vivid image. Even for serious writers, mastery of the approriate tone is a difficult thing.

And yet, this has been a great series, well researched (see the piece about clothing especially). It is indeed a testament to humanity's adaptability that we can eke out a living on pennies, that we can live in objective squalor and cramped conditions, hustling and strategizing even on an empty stomach, dressed in second-hand clothes and still try to find the wherewithal to send our children to school.

In much the same way I don't begrudge Spielberg filming Amistad or Barbara Kingsolver writing about Congo in The Poisonwood Bible. The may miss the nuances of the issues, they may simplify things for reasons of mass entertainment. But at least they are writing about our stories; they could be concerning themselves with say the problems of annorexia rather than the all too common starvation, or the legacy of slavery. As the series illuminates, we just have a lot hurdles to overcome, and a lot of competion. In any case, African voices will get their hearing eventually; our stories are being written daily - I know I'm writing mine.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

On swallowing pills

I must confess that I have a handicap, dear reader - or is it more of a dirty secret - can it really be a secret if I'm writing about it in a weblog?

The thing is that I don't know how to swallow pills.

There! I've said it. I can see your head tilting already and a look of concern/bemusement forming: Can he really be serious? A full-grown 31-year old man can't swallow pills! Didn't everybody get over that as a child? What's wrong with him? etc.

Now this is the kind of thing that is difficult to admit. It's not quite like confessing an addiction or a social disease, but it's more like having a blind spot, a strange fetish or a peculiar deficiency of some sort (say like a penchant for wearing spiderman underpants). You feel like you want to stiffen the man up, slap or shake him, shouting "Just grow up, shape up etc.", as it were.

I certainly feel that way sometimes, but it's essentially just your garden variety phobia and/or eccentricity; something one lives with and gets on with. Like everyone I've had my fair share of illness (colds, flus etc), and occasionally with more serious and longer-term diseases, I've had to take daily regimes of pills so I have to deal with this problem regularly. I'm the kind of person the drug companies might point to when they claim that 'people in the third world don't know how to take drugs on a schedule' and decide not to supply AIDs drugs to poor countries.

Of course my problem is being able to take drugs at all, let alone taking them on a schedule.

Obviously I can, and do, swallow food - it's clearly not a problem with the mechanical act. In Ghana, we eat something called fufu - which is swallowed, not chewed - that's typically the child's gentle introduction to the ways of dealing with pills. Now I've always swallowed fufu so this difficiency was all too perplexing to all who raised me and noticed this aspect of me. Even today, the problem is psychological. It's the notion of knowingly ingesting potentially bitter medecine that is at issue - knowing that it will help you or provide relief is irrelevant. A couple of anecdotes are in order.:

I still remember the look of disappointment on my aunt's face: aged 6 or 7, with my mother out of town, I'd had a particularly bad asthma attack; the doctor prescribed something or other. First I couldn't/wouldn't take the pill, then she tried putting it amongst small balls of fufu - that didn't work; then she ground things up - I fought but eventually managed to take it down... Of course, since I hadn't swallowed, the pills had unsettled my stomach. Within 15 minutes, I had thrown up... so then the rigmarole continued: me being further weakened, now with an empty stomach and still sick and needing to take the medecine to get better. So it's a process of cook more soup and fufu, grind and try again, repeat as many times as necessary. Her's was a labour of love (and especially patience) but she essentially had to revert to treating me like a newborn baby. I can imagine her shaking her head and laughing as she would recount the events to my mother on her return: "That your son, he's a 'special' one."

On another occasion, after coming out of surgery (I believe I was 22 years old - as you'd note, not much progress in the intervening years, it was surgery with anaesthesia and all), I was given painkillers and some antibiotics; the nurse explained the prognosis: there would be pain, considerable pain, for the next week, but the painkillers would take off the edge. She left the recovery room and I started my excruciating pill-taking routine. The antibiotic went down well - well it took a few minutes, hemming, hawing. But when it came to the painkiller, it wouldn't work, I just couldn't swallow the pill, it was too big, wrong shaped etc. After 5-10 minutes, I tried chewing but it was awful, I tried, I tried...

So I did the next best thing, I spat it out and hid the pieces in my sling under my cast. Half an hour of increasing pain passed and the returning nurse ultimately discovered her patient in pain and then the culpatory material. I smiled weakly/apologetically etc... Again it was the same look - you're can't quite be manly in such circumstances... but then she was all business and professional (she must see this occasionally - maligerering or rather non-compliance), she got me another pill and waited to watch me take it... it took 10 minutes... Embarrasment is the least of it, not to mention the pinkish stain on my cast as a reminder for the next few weeks.

Now looking back it's funny, I was in severe pain, I'd just had surgery and yet this was my lot. Over the years I've trained myself to confront this failing and most times I've managed to deal with this... Here some of the number of coping mechanisms I've developed.

1. Avoidance

Simply don't get ill, healthy people don't take pills (unless it's vitamins). Or it's close cousin:

2. When ill, simply pretend that you're not ill.

This latter variant of course exacerbates things because one misses out on things like the benefits of prevention or early treatment.

3. Seek out chewables

This was more feasible when I was a child (see vitamins). But I don't see antibiotics like pennicillin in chewable format. More to the point, no amount of sugar or sweetener can ever make certain pills go down satisfactorily. Certainly this is true of quinine or choloroquin (which is sometimes given for malaria) as I know from painful experience - these are the worst tasting things imaginable, poisons essentially.

4.a Seek out powders, syrups or

4b. crush pills

I loved my Ventolin (such a sweet syrup, it tasted good, looked good (nice and reddish), and provided relief - it also had nasty side effects, French doctors were horrified to learn that I had been using it but that's another story). Similarly, the powdered, lemon-flavoured flu medications, Lemsip and TheraFlu, seem to do the trick, tried and true and decent stand-ins for Ibruprofen/Advil/Tylenol/Sudafed most of the time.

Grinding or crushing a pill is a last resort; it feels like cheating, unmanly somehow.

5. Seeking out the right shape and size pill

Some pill shapes give me more problems than others, I seem to have problems with rounded pills for some reason - it doesn't matter how small they are. The dreaded capsule is the worst offender. I can't do it, I'm half defeated already. It's coated, so its contents are clearly bitter and would upset your stomach if you chew. So its a struggle... I note: the smaller the pill, the better so oval 120-200mg tablets work best.

6. The long production

With practice, I've eventually 'learnt' how to take most medecines. I have my eccentric routines but by-and-large it's not an ordeal. Sometimes however, it's a case of the 'long production'. Even now, I can spend 10 minutes trying to swallow, pacing around the rooms, tilting head, standing up, sitting down, etc to no avail.

And that is where I'm at now, and why I'm writing this blog entry.

I've just now gone through most of these stages: I've been fighting a (now-diagnosed) sinus infection for the past week and the doctor has just prescribed some antibiotics and something to thin out the sinus channels. There was avoidance, denial for a few days, unfortunately chewables were not an option, and I had to settle on powders but even these haven't worked. So on to the current, forebidding prescription:
  • The one is a huge 500 mg capsule
  • The other is a 720mg tablet. A beast in other words - and the wrong shape too, more square than oval and bulging ominously.
I just took them:
  • the first one went down ok - modulo a chew or two
  • the other was a long production ™. 7 minutes too. I had been been through all the stages. I couldn't chew, it was a capsule, I know better than that. I did the pacing, the tilting etc.
With antibiotics these days, you have to take the full course. this is going to be an interesting few days.

With the internet being what it is, there are lots of resources about my ills, primers on 'pill swallowing' even educational videos. They all target children, emphasizing behavior modifcation, reinforcement, building confidence, performance anxiety etc and even the last resort, consulting bevioural psychiatrists (basically it's just like potty training). Hmmm... I wonder if I can be cured, I'm tempted to order off a video or something. Or I'm a more of a malade imaginaire?

There's a new film out this week, Maria, Full of Grace, which is about how a young, newly pregnant girl from Columbia becomes (or is forced into becoming) a 'drug mule'. It's supposed to be a heart-stopping drama and audiences are apparently gripping their seats when she swallows her cargo of 60 or so little pellets of heroine - wrapped in some plastic or other to ensure they don't dissove in her stomach and kill her. The tagline:
These pellets contain heroine. Each weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide. And they're on their way to New York in the stomach of a 17-year-old girl.
I'll be watching that scene with more than professional interest: perhaps I can learn something about swallowing pills.

The drugs are kicking in now... It will be light blogging for the next few days.

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The $10 impossible dream: A year of school

The LA Times continues its series on 'living with pennies', focusing this time on education. it doesn't go into as much depth and tackles the issue of what happens when you can't afford to pay the fees.

The $10 impossible dream: A year of school

The note sent home with the 922 students of Silwanetshe Primary School was clear: Pay up or drop out.

The next morning, about 500 children whose parents couldn't afford the $10 annual fee were absent. When classes began, 11-year-old Mduduzi Mkhize and his sisters, Precious, 10, and Zinhle, 8, could only press against the wire fence that separates their mud hut from the school grounds.

"I wish I was there," Mduduzi, a third-grader with a love of arithmetic and penmanship, said as he watched his classmates begin their morning prayers.

Vast numbers of Africa's children stand with Mduduzi and his sisters — trapped on the other side of the fence. Many attend school sporadically. Others don't even start. Of an estimated 115 million children worldwide who have never been to school, nearly 40% live in Africa, according to the World Bank.

These children may have survived disease, war or famine to reach school age. But for want of a few dollars a year, they will never be educated.

Because most Africans get by on less than a dollar a day, school is a luxury they cannot afford. After feeding their children, parents must stretch their pennies to pay for clothes and other basic needs. Even if they manage to set aside some money for school, they may have to choose which of their children to educate.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has promoted education as an antidote to poverty and conflict. The government spends nearly 8% of the nation's gross domestic product on education — a higher percentage than the United States or Britain — and the nation is widely recognized as having the best school system on the continent.

Even so, public schools must charge fees to stay open, which excludes many thousands of children. A third of South Africa's children don't make it past fifth grade.

Mduduzi is too young to grasp that a lack of schooling will keep him on society's lowest rung. For him, it is much simpler. "I miss reading," he said. "I miss learning to write. But most of all, I miss my friends."

Louis Mndaweni, principal of the Silwanetshe school, understands. He was once as poor as these children.

"It breaks my heart to have to send the children home," he said. "But if we don't enforce the rules, we'll have no money to run the school. There will be no school to come to."
This is all too common unfortunately throughout the continent. For us living outside the continent, it is not uncommon to deal with the following scenario - send money home for nieces, nephews' school fees, parents can't manage and use the money for food or other necessities (worst case is it's wasted on other things), child doesn't have the $5 to give to teacher, stops attending school, starts work at home (in the best case). A couple of years go by and the child is off the track, lost to the system - then teenage pregnancy for the girls or the boys then a life essentially hustling, selling dog chains and chinese plastic goods at intersections in the road. Its a harsh, brutish and short life that looms.

Tertiary Education is my mum's current portfolio so this remit is part of our daily lives and worries. If one looks at it head on, it's almost too large a problem to confront. And yet the kids show up, proud in their uniforms if they have one, want to go to school, to learn. On that basis, these problems are not insurmountable.

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Sunday, July 18, 2004

On political theatre and politics as theatre

There's a interesting piece today by The Observer's Nick Cohen: No news is bad news: "Not even a war or a government in turmoil can get the new Generation X engaged in current affairs". He first points to the kind of attention and political theatre that Britain experience this week, first with the Butler report on the intelligence failings and 'sexing up' of a dubious case for war in Iraq and in the two subsequent by-elections in which Blair's Labour party suffered serious, but not fatal setbacks. Tony Blair has been under serious political pressure for cozying up with Bush and dragging his country into an unpopular war with the disastrous unraveling we are now seeing. Cohen though is more interested in what this says about the health of democracy in his country. He's almost annoyed with the electorate.

On Thursday, the public passed its verdict in the Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South by-elections. The results were sensational. They raised the stark and unavoidable question: What's the matter with the public? Why is it so willfully dumb?

In Leicester the turnout was 41 per cent. The free citizens of Hodge Hill bettered that: only 37 per cent bothered to vote. In the past, a convincing case has been made that in an age when capitalism is triumphant and all the main parties agree on the need to deregulate and privatise, there was little point in voting, particularly when Tony Blair was going to win every election going anyway. The apathy bred by the consensus of the 1990s was either terrible, because it hollowed out democracy, or marvelous, because it meant people were happy and didn't feel the need to waste their time on ideological differences.

Neither variant of the argument works today. The Iraq war should have blasted apathy away. It split the country down the middle and strained families and friendships. If Blair had lost both seats to the Liberal Democrats, the pressure on him to go would have increased. If he had won both, he would have been safe. Voting might have changed something. Yet presented with the findings of an official inquiry by a diligent media on the eve of the election, three-fifths of voters in Leicester and two-thirds of voters in Birmingham were too idle to walk a few hundred yards to a polling station and pick up a pencil.

Journalists blame politicians for cynicism and politicians blame journalists. They can't blame the public because in market democracies the public is either the sovereign people who confer political legitimacy on governments or the sovereign consumer who confer economic legitimacy on corporations. Yet to anyone who cares about rational debate, the evidence is overwhelming that market democracies are eating themselves. You can have modern capitalism or you can have modern democracy but it is becoming ever more difficult to have both.
After the disastrous turnout in the 2001 election, Richard Sambrook, the director of BBC news, noticed that something odd was happening to his audience. The young have always been more concerned with sex and drugs and rock and roll than the state of the world. The conventional wisdom was that when they settled down and had children they would want to know about education policy and the state of the economy, they would want the news. But, said Sambrook, the old rule that people would begin to care about current affairs in their late 20s no longer held. The young were following the path beaten by the baby-boomers and staying infantilised into middle age....

The worship of the great gods of choice and deregulation was undermining the necessary myth of democracy that the electorate wants to be equipped to pass judgment on the great issues of the day...

There's a comforting idea that the public is getting its news elsewhere - from the internet or the 24-hour channels. A minority may be, but the theory that people need a fixed amount of news a day, like so many calories or litres of water, doesn't stand-up. When Hollyoaks ends and Channel 4 news begins at 7pm, Channel 4's share of the young audiences collapses. BBC1's hour of national and local news comes to an end at the same time, and the BBC's audience share bounces up. The young understand the deregulated, digital world and know how to find the thousands of paths which take the audience away from news. It's now depressingly clear that news bulletins and documentaries only reached mass audiences in the past because there wasn't much else for the masses to watch.

For the public-service BBC and the broadsheet press, the only honourable way out for the shrinking number of journalists whose employment can be justified is to become proudly elitist; to offer serious news to the minority who want it and hope that their deliberations will trickle down to wider society. (Don't panic, there isn't a hope in hell of this happening.)

As for British democracy, no one knows what to do. If the most controversial war of modern times can't persuade a majority to vote, what can?
Cohen is a serious journalist, ostensibly writing in one of the most vibrant, competitive and sophisticated media markets in the world. The landscape of the print press is far more vital in the UK than the States (english broadsheets are national newspapers and they face ferocious competition from the tabloid press unlike in the US). He writes intelligent pieces for a serious audience, but he despairs of the political engagemement of the wider populace. Unfortunately this comes with the territory of modern-day market democracies, it is good to look at modern-day western politics as theatre, informed by the rough-and-tumble marketplace of mass entertainment and communications. That's what Ronald Reagan political success epitomized, what Karl Rove understands and applied rather successfully in the packaging of Dubya after 9/11 - although the cold reality of Iraq has intruded and the scripts now need to be retooled. The lingua franca of the political debate is informed by drama. This is an argument for the cinematic.

Tina Brown covers much the same territory in the Washington Post Looking for an Angel to Outfox Murdoch in which she's looking for a media-savvy Soros as it were.
Within hours of the report's release, the headline on London's Evening Standard was an inflammatory screamer: "Whitewash 2." Brits across the board are so angry at being conned into war that how big a liar and/or manipulator you deem Tony Blair just depends on what paper you read.

Blair-bashing in London is almost more exhausting than Bush-bashing in New York because the Tories provide no credible political opposition. The opposition is the press. Dealing with its daily attacks and distortions for eight years while maintaining his buoyant resolve has only toughened the prime minister and scored him points with the public. It hones him for the gladiatorial sessions of Question Time in the House of Commons, an ordeal of direct accountability inconceivable for a U.S. president.

Unlike Bush, Blair is used to living without a partisan media comfort zone. In Britain, it's a smackdown across party lines, prompted more by competition and mischief than ideology. The papers that supported Blair on the Iraq war trash him about the European Union and vice versa. With the tabloids, it doesn't matter if the facts don't fit the argument. When he won three big diplomatic victories over the French and German federalists in the enlarged European Union -- keeping Britain's control of its own taxation, foreign policy and defense, exactly as he had vowed to do -- Blair came home to headlines about his miserable sellouts. "What about our rights, Tony?" jeered the front page of the relentlessly hostile Daily Mail.

That's why if you're a Brit like me it's hard to get too riled up about Robert Greenwald's new documentary, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism,"... Like all good agitprop, "Outfoxed" exists more to confirm dark hunches than to change minds. It's unlikely, after all, that passionate devotees of Bill O'Reilly are trawling West Side cocktail parties and gate-crashing screening events looking to have their minds changed. But this is the year when it's not enough to vote, you have to vote with your veins popping and your eyes bulging. Screeching to the choir is all the rage.

What the movie ignores is the real reason Fox has remained so popular: It's not the politics. It's the flair, stupid. It's the same with Murdoch's racy tab, the New York Post, which is read like a ransom note every morning by all the people who most deplore its point of view. In the U.K., the Daily Mail, which isn't owned by Murdoch, is scarily powerful not because of its parochial, jingoistic, Little England judgments but because of the flawless timing of its malice, the instinctive brilliance with which it identifies and exploits the next national paranoia or distraction. Whether it's the "rising tide" of British pedophilia (statistically on the decline) or the right moment to put the boot to soccer god David Beckham, the Daily Mail is all over it. The difference is that there are plenty of other raucous, mainstream voices to hit back.

The problem with Fox News, therefore, is not Fox News. It's the others. It's that Roger Ailes's brilliant belligerence and formidable TV skills are not matched enough with reportorial testosterone and creativity elsewhere. The concentration of media power among a handful of behemoths makes the mainstream scared and driven by the bottom line. There is a retreat in newspapers as much as in TV from investigative reporting and foreign coverage into craven cost-cutting, Foxian imitation, "lifestyle" journalism or pallid, self-correcting "balanced" coverage that treats a genuine scandal like the Senate intelligence revelations as just another story of the day.

Unsatisfied consumers, browbeaten by the bromide that the U.S. media are too liberal, have to seek emotional relief in the distortions of "Fahrenheit 9/11." But isn't there a more creditable challenger than Michael Moore?

Wanted: A new entrepreneurial media wild man, with deep pockets and real curiosity, who's turned on as much by rigorous reporting as access to power.

Big media need someone with integrity, passion and resolve who believes that hard news and in-depth foreign coverage can be the sexiest kind of reality show and knows how to sell it to a famished audience with as much dogged showmanship as Roger Ailes sells Fox News.

Tina Brown does capture the sense that flair, a nose for 'showmanship', and sensitivity to the dramatic is a necessary component in the nexus of politics and journalism. Those who hated her tenure at the New Yorker and gloated at the failures of Talk magazine on the grounds of 'being too showy or tabloid' missed this. At her prime, she was very closely attuned to the cultural context she lived in.

I do believe though that one can still be substantive even when operating under this framework; I'd point to Clinton, as politician of substance, who clearly understood and internalized this notion. Indeed that's what I look for in all politicians: awareness of the territory they tread on and 'authenticity' in the zeitgeist. I think Kerry is just beginning to grapple with this question of framing authenticity.

It is simple-minded to ask 'why is the public so dumb?' like Cohen does. Bush and Blair's current difficulties argue otherwise. Stirling Newbury explains this very well in "Why Bush Seemed Popular (And Why He Isn't Now)" and especially here in Fin de Regime. Being an effective operator in these market democracies certainly entails an affinity with Hollywood, or let's stretch it, Hip Hop, and whatever belies the latest consumer trends. Cohen should frame his journalistic advocacy in a cinematic fashion, maybe even a la Michael Moore. But consonance with the theatre of our times is just one weapon among many - albeit a very effective weapon. First this:
The Post-Modern illusion is.. that cultural bombardment is responsible for everything - sexuality, anorexia, voting patterns and so on. And the chattering classes - bloggers included - spend endless time arguing over what the effect of every little media image and idea is.

We should save some of our time, because gross economics is far more determinate of public mood than pictures. The pictures we see on television don't create the mood, they resonate with it. The two push on each other, but the raw numbers tell the story, often better than the pictures do. Or rather, a picture of the underlying truth is worth a million media images.

And then this:
The Curve returns as the New York Times has featured, on successive days curved origami and now the tear drop design of cars. The curve is of course organic, but also a controlled sense of organic. And the curve is the antithesis of the blocky "Decade of Stupid" look which swept America in 2002, when it seemed that plowing ahead was the solution to all of our problems.

It isn't clear that this retro-30's/50's look and idea is going win out, but it is on the roads - the curved look heralded by the PT Cruiser and the Beetle has gotten a slight update with a sharp angle between top and sides that gives cars an edged, dangerous "stealth" look that gives the curve sharklike teeth.

Yes, it's the end of an era, with the last of 1990's grunge saying good-bye, in television shows, in cars. In fashion trends the falling out of clothes look is now competing with a retro-sophisticated look, and which one wins will tell us a great deal of how we feel about the future. The congruence between what people feel, and the solutions they seek, is very close. The hemline rises and falls with the dollar, and the lowered hemlines and return to curves tell us that America wants a smarter, more restrained approach.

But we don't know what it means yet.

But it is the end of the Regime. As the Grinches in Congress try to shove a 120 Billion dollar Corporate Christmas tree back up the Chimney - loaded with big breaks for their backers, and smaller bribes for farmers and some republican states, to oil its way through - it is clear they know that this is their last chance to get on the gravy train. That next year brings retrenchment.

And retrenchment is what is the more restrained look says. If they are making Gwen Steffani look like a 1930's sophisticate, there is a trend in the offing.

But what does this mean for our politics. I will assert that the mood of the country is something that the elites watch and want to harvest - but they harvest and sow, they do not create it. Thus if one goes into the halls of power, the topic is an obsession with what is going on "out there", where their fortunes are made, as they jockey for the chance to put ideas, products, politicians before the public.

When the mood changes one can see it by the failure of certain products. The angular ugly of the Honda Element and the Pontiac Aztec - with the boom of the Toyota Prius, which has a one year waiting list at MSRP - shows the change. America is willing to be less prodigal, but is this "mood" enough. Only if a politician can make an emotional appeal to it, and show the people who hold this mood that it is "authentic" that it can work.

The mood of belligerent carbonated hostility which Bush appealed to has been shown to be "inauthentic" in that it cannot be sustained. It doesn't "work". The more humble "restrained" formula he puts forward doesn't work either, since there is no way that the Bushconomy can pay the debt service on a short term paper financed national debt that is ballooning by half a trillion a year - particularly with the baby boom about to retire.

Thus there is, in the sophistication, the smoothness, tainted with a knife edge that one can see in the paper folds, the cars - a possibility of the style that will become political and socially centered, and will produce the aesthetic sense of government.

And don't under-estimate that aesthetic sense: people choose as much by what feels right, by the aesthetic power of the idea or person, as much by any calculation. As many elite Go players will tell you, the cultivation of the aesthetic sense of where to put the next stone is the great sign of mastery of that most complex of simple games.

It is the fin de la regime, because we can no longer stand the glowering blues and brutish thug look that men were poured into in their suits, and the "big man's main slut" look that dominates the red carpet is beginning to look like a fashion malfunction...
In this vein, it is not a political commentator or journalist who will have the definitive word on this phenomenon. I'll point to Gil Scot-Heron in "B"-Movie, one of my favourite pieces of jazz-funk agitprop commenting apropos Ronald Reagan's rise in 1980. Like the song, it's an mp3, says "we're all just living in a movie". A video of a live performance is available.
Well, the first thing I want to say is. "Mandate my ass!"

Because it seems as though we've been convinced that 26% of the registered voters, not even 26% of the American people, but 26% of the registered voters form a mandate - or a landslide. 21% voted for Skippy and 3, 4% voted for somebody else who might have been running.

But, oh yeah, I remember. In this year that we have now declared the year from Shogun to Reagan, I remember what I said about Raygun. Meant it. Acted like an actor. Hollyweird. Acted like a liberal. Acted like General Franco when he acted like governor of California, then he acted like a republican. Then he acted like somebody was going to vote for him for president. And now we act like 26% of the registered voters is actually a mandate. We're all actors in this I suppose.

What has happened is that in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer. And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune. The consumer has got to dance. That's the way it is. We used to be a producer - very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand. Natural resources and minerals will change your world. The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World. They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one. Controlling your resources we'll control your world. This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now. They don't know if they want to be Matt Dillon or Bob Dylan. They don't know if they want to be diplomats or continue the same policy - of nuclear nightmare diplomacy. John Foster Dulles ain't nothing but the name of an airport now.

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can - even if it's only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse - or the man who always came to save America at the last moment - someone always came to save America at the last moment - especially in "B" movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan - and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at - like a "B" movie.

Come with us back to those inglorious days when heroes weren't zeros. Before fair was square. When the cavalry came straight away and all-American men were like Hemingway to the days of the wondrous "B" movie. The producer underwritten by all the millionaires necessary will be Casper "The Defensive" Weinberger - no more animated choice is available. The director will be Attila the Haig, running around frantically declaring himself in control and in charge. The ultimate realization of the inmates taking over at the asylum. The screenplay will be adapted from the book called "Voodoo Economics" by George "Papa Doc" Bush. Music by the "Village People" the very military "Macho Man."

"Macho, macho man!"
" He likes to be - well, you get the point."
"Huuut! Your left! Your left! Your left. Right, left, right, left, right.!"

A theme song for saber-rallying and selling wars door-to-door. Remember, we're looking for the closest thing we can find to John Wayne. Clichés abound like kangaroos - courtesy of some spaced out Marlin Perkins, a Reagan contemporary. Clichés like, "itchy trigger finger" and "tall in the saddle" and "riding off or on into the sunset." Clichés like, "Get off of my planet by sundown!" More so than clichés like, "he died with his boots on." Marine tough the man is. Bogart tough the man is. Cagney tough the man is. Hollywood tough the man is. Cheap stick tough. And Bonzo's substantial. The ultimate in synthetic selling: A Madison Avenue masterpiece - a miracle - a cotton-candy politician.Presto! Macho!

"Macho, macho man!"

Put your orders in America. And quick as Kodak your leaders duplicate with the accent being on the nukes - cause all of a sudden we have fallen prey to selective amnesia - remembering what we want to remember and forgetting what we choose to forget. All of a sudden, the man who called for a blood bath on our college campuses is supposed to be Dudley "God-damn" Do-Right?

"You go give them liberals hell Ronnie." That was the mandate. To the new "Captain Bly" on the new ship of fools. It was doubtlessly based on his chameleon performance of the past - as a liberal democrat - as the head of the Studio Actor's Guild. When other celluloid saviors were cringing in terror from McCarthy - Ron stood tall. It goes all the way back from Hollywood to hillbilly. From liberal to libelous, from "Bonzo" to Birch idol. Born again. Civil rights, women's rights, gay's all wrong. Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. God damn it. First one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom.

Nostalgia, that's what we want.the good ol' days. When we gave 'em hell. When the buck stopped somewhere and you could still buy something with it. To a time when movies were in black and white - and so was everything else. Even if we go back to the campaign trail, before six-gun Ron shot off his face and developed hoof-in-mouth. Before the free press went down before full-court press. And were reluctant to review the menu because they knew the only thing available was - Crow.

Lon Chaney, our man of a thousand faces - no match for Ron. Doug Henning does the make-up - special effects from Grecian Formula 16 and Crazy Glue. Transportation furnished by the David Rockefeller of Remote Control Company. Their slogan is, "Why wait for 1984? You can panic now...and avoid the rush."

So much for the good news.

As Wall Street goes, so goes the nation. And here's a look at the closing numbers - racism's up, human rights are down, peace is shaky, war items are hot - the House claims all ties. Jobs are down, money is scarce - and common sense is at an all-time low on heavy trading. Movies were looking better than ever and now no one is looking because, we're starring in a "B" movie. And we would rather had John Wayne. We would rather had John Wayne.

"You don't need to be in no hurry.
You ain't never really got to worry.
And you don't need to check on how you feel.
Just keep repeating that none of this is real.
And if you're sensing, that something's wrong,
Well just remember, that it won't be too long
Before the director cuts the scene. Yeah."

"This ain't really your life,
Ain't really your life,
Ain't really ain't nothing but a movie."

[Refrain repeated about 25 times or more in an apocalyptic crescendo with a military cadence.]

"This ain't really your life,
Ain't really your life,
Ain't really ain't nothing but a movie."

More toli on the B-Movie Theory

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Friday, July 16, 2004

Mosquitos, West Nile Virus and Malaria

The only snail mail I got today was a little pamphlet from the Cambridge Public Health Department, warning about West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne diseases.

I thought it was quite appropriate given the alarming incidence of malaria, especially back home as this map indicates. My bouts with malaria as a child and teenager still loom large in my psyche - especially the couple of epic episodes that never seemed to be overcome, recurring weekly for almost 6 weeks. I remember losing a scary amout of weight. Not to mention the fear of being taken to the 'London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine" where mum would warn "you'll be sure to be treated as a guinea pig for weeks by doctors, or worse, students who've never seen a malaria parasite, will order up the most exotic tests they can think up, while never curing you". The notion of ever going through a malarial fever is about the worst thing I can think of, hence my paranoia whenever I'm back in Ghana (bug spray, drugs etc).

In my memory what I had gotten in most memorable bouts was called the 'go-slow malaria' which was thought to be caused by newer drug-resistant strains of the malarial parasites that emerged in the 80s. You had the awful, but standard fever for a few days, would get well enough to get back to work, but then the next week, you would relapse and the fever would come back, repeat ad nauseum. Clearly this would be a big drag on productivity, people would be weak, essentially walking wounded during the week and never get well for months on end.

Interestingly it turns out, trust Google, that my recollection was in part inaccurate; at least per the following - Problems of Irrational Drug Use.

In many African countries, malaria is treated with injectible chloroquin rather than adequate doses of oral chloroquin. This leads to apparent treatment failure, which in Ghana is called "go slow malaria."
The symptoms I observed are still prevalent, but "go slow" has a different cause. You learn something everyday, don't you? I'll need to follow up with Dr. Ofori-Adjei (who knows more about malaria and mosquitos than almost anyone.)

Of course, if it isn't adequate doses or adulterated pills, there's also the interaction between people's prescribed drugs and the herbal remedies they are taking on the side. This is an a big deal these days because people are questionning the effectiveness of AIDS drugs. The tension between the scientists and the healers serving traditional medicine regimes is something that Abena will hopefully address in a definitive study. br>
Searching around on this issue, I found a funny exchange on a Ghanaian forum. First this:
Korle-Bu Hospital now plans to use herbal medicine, my concern are those medicines combo that cures hiv, hypertension, diabetes and cancer that patients so believe in. herbal medicines are not researched on neither animals nor humans and the datas are not collected and documented for other reseachers to continue improving on it. These are herb mixture made up by herbalist on their merits, no data, no national food and drug regulation and yet, the administratve board at korle-bu is approving it use. People talk of the benefits of herbs in china, yet no one talks of the high cases of stroks in that population and why that happens. why not use the effort to continue medicine from 2004 standard, why go back to the days of the cave man?. Please help me on this matter. and please ask yourself if you will choose traditioal medicine over orthodox to treat your mother's diabetes or cancer.
This was the angry response from someone annoyed that 'herbal medecine' was being denigrated:
Hello Mr Ignoramus !!!! Herbal medicine has been undergoing intensive research for so many years in the country. I'll tell you for a fact that when people were dying of the strain of Malaria called "go slow" locally, it was herbs my 2 grandmothers prepared and boiled that was administered to my father a herb sceptic that cured him. After korle-bu had thrown its hands up in resignation to an imminent end. Please be wise and learn from your people. My remaining grandparents who use herbal medicine in support of orthodox medicine are still alive and still healthy, past 77 years old . My deceased grandparents who also did the same died at very old ages, 90 & 99. Is that testament enough?
Our way with the English language is great, isn't it?

West Nile virus hit the east coast of the US a few years ago and seems to have spread to California this year. I can remember the slight panic of the that summer, when I saw trucks roaming the steets of Cambridge, loud horns exclaiming warnings and spraying insecticide over the streets.

They call this state "Taxachusetts", supposedly because it the high tax burden (actually a bit of an exaggeration, but, even if the claim were true), this to my mind is exactly what government is good for. I don't mind paying taxes if my city would have a public health department (testing, monitoring, spraying my streets and even sending educational pamphlets.

On to the pamphlet itself, it covers the basics: personal protection and source reduction. The idea is simply not to get bitten (insect repellent, screens on windows and doors) to eliminate standing water sources, clogged gutters and the like where mosquitos breed.

Again it is only not much more than 50 years or so since diseases like malaria were endemic in New York even in Paris and cold London. The West has devoted massive amounts of resources towards Public Health measures and education (see for example The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life by Nancy Tomes).

Bill Gates, God bless him, has put up more than $250 million up for malaria research, far more than most countries. Hopefully we'll start to make a dent on it. Now that mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus are again hitting the US, perhaps the government will start applying it's energies to it. More likely though, we'll need a 'War on Terror' tie-in, that's what government spends these days. There are actually a couple of incidents on that front:

First, soldiers in tropical and countries like Iraq need to take Larium to ward off malaria - which has serious side-effects (hallucinations and the occasional psychotic episodes). There were a rash of murders at Fort Bragg by Marines returning from Iraq, typically killing their spouses). Now this is not new, my psychiatrist uncle treats some of the exchange students at Legon who were prescribed Larium and has to deal with their mental health issues (student life in a poor, foreign country is difficult enough without daily hallucinations). This article is ties the use of Larium to the torture scandal.

And then there's fiasco of the marines in Liberia. Mr Bush, how do we 'take the fight to Al Queda' in those tropical places if all our troops fall ill?
The number of malaria cases among U.S. Marines serving in Liberia ose again Thursday, with 51 showing symptoms of the illness, defense officials said. The 51 sickened represent almost a fourth of some 225 who went ashore to help West African peacekeepers last month.
I wonder, does Accra even have a Public Health Department? I suspect the answer is a sad one.

Update - July 20 2004

I certainly didn't know this: if you catch a mosquito feeding on you, you should flick it away rather than squashing it, lest you drive its infectious guts into your body.
The issue is reviewed in an article published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine that focuses on a 57-year-old Pennsylvania woman who died in 2002 of a fungal infection in her muscles called Brachiola algerae.

Doctors were puzzled because the fungus was thought to be found only in mosquitoes and other insects. But it's not found in mosquito saliva like West Nile virus and malaria, so a simple mosquito bite could not have caused the infection.

The article's authors concluded that the woman must have smashed a mosquito on her skin, smearing its body parts into the bite.
See also: West Nile Blues

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On slums, squalor and Sodom and Gomorrah

The LA Times continues its series on 'living with pennies'. this time focusing on the physical living conditions of a large portion of humanity.

Squalor everywhere, but still this is a neighborhood:

Plastic bags, knotted and sagging, soar across the slum late at night.

They bounce off tin roofs, splatter against mud walls patched with tin cans and tumble down the steep hillside, where they sprout every few feet like plastic weeds. In the morning, they are trampled into the ground.

After 33 years in this shantytown known as Deep Sea, Cecilia Wahu barely notices the bags anymore. They are called "flying toilets," and because no one here has a bathroom, everyone has thrown a few.

"My dream, before I die, is to live in a permanent house, not a shack," says Wahu, 66, who has rheumy eyes and is missing teeth. "It could be small, but it must have a nice kitchen, a real bed and its own toilet."

That is her dream. Her reality is an 8-by-8-foot mud hut.

Survival in Deep Sea is a matter of staying above an endless tide of mud and waste. All that separates Wahu from the filth is a dirt floor, thin plank doors and a stubborn sense that even this place is a neighborhood.

About 1,500 people are crammed into this treacherously steep four-acre warren. They live on less than a dollar a day, and this is the best shelter they can afford.

There is one water faucet, one toilet and no electricity. The homes are jumbles of tin, red-baked mud and sticks that barely keep from tumbling into the fetid Gitathuru River below.

Tropical rains eat away at the walls. Roving bands of thugs threaten to break down homes unless they are paid protection money. Wealthy neighbors across the river lobby the government to clear the hillside.

The future of Africa is bound up in such places.
The whole article is worth reading, it deals with Kenya but it pretty much captures the flavor of what I've seen in Ghana. I suppose slums are the same everywhere in the world whether it's Lagos, Mumbai, Port-au-Prince, Haiti or Rio. On the other hand, by concentrating on the physical squalor, one misses a little of the color and vitality of those places and the people who live there. The bustling nature, the loud sounds, laughter, crying. People living in objective squalor are sometimes the most house-proud whether as in the places in my own experience (Abutia, James Town and Aburi) or the houses I visited in Soweto in 1994. Simply concentrating on these places as an accumulation of tin shacks, or mud huts, as the case may be, that are festering with disease is not to tell the whole story. Human beings can, and do, adapt to anything; even in these conditions we are all jostling for a foothold and way out. Not to mention that we've all seen Beverly Hills and Manhattan, even if only on CNN or the movies.

Growing up in Ghana, one was always aware of the poor living conditions. The poverty in the villages was bad enough but the sheer physicality of city slums bring everything to the fore. Poverty often juxtaposed in startling proximity to great wealth and luxury. James Town, where the Ofosu-Amaah family home is, is right next to the Castle, the seat of the government, and is in many ways a very depressing place. But then things change. As a child, Nima occupied a place in my imagination as the worst slum in Accra, a rough and miserable place; the stereotypes of Nima boys was as uncouth, brash, vicious, ill-educated - your garden-variety slum boys. A decade or so on, many of those things are still true but things are changing and it's not just better education. Physically, the shacks are sturdier and perhaps more sanitary - maybe built with tin and the occasional bags of concrete, rather than the asbestos and mud of old. I guess the same is true these days in Soweto, the 'notorious' township of old is now marketed for tourism, rebranded the 'largest urban residential area'. It's a struggle but it is not a static state. Home improvement is not just popular in the US or UK.

There's a slum in Accra called Sodom and Gomorrah (the link is to a photo essay on it which says it all). The reason it earned that biblical name is quite obvious; it is the worst of the worst - at least in Ghana circa 2001-present. (Nima boys might even fear to tread there). Governments have been trying to demolish it for the longest time. It is unsafe, insanitary, lawless and all the things one would expect. Here is a good piece about it:

End of the road for 'Sodom and Gomorrah' squatters

On arrival in Accra the first point of call is this 'no man's land', which is succour for the disadvantaged in Accra. Soon, and as is common with slums in some parts of the world, the place became a hideout for armed robbers, prostitutes, drug pushers and all kinds of criminals-hence the name 'Sodom and Gomorrah'. The people sleep, eat, and relieve themselves in the open, making it unfit for human habitation

In view of the disorderly nature of life in the area, successive governments have tried to give the lagoon and its surrounding some face-lift. In fact, plans to make the place a resort has been on the drawing board for a long time, but the political will to initiate the project has held it down this far. Doing that means dislodging the hundreds of thousands of squatters from a land that means everything to them and with that, jeopardising their survival

Early this year, the government obtained a Kuwaiti Fund loan to implement the "Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project." Under the project, government is expected to dredge the lagoon and restore its surroundings to a green belt and recreational facility. This is because the Lagoon is near Ghana's premier hospital- the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, which has been affected by the lagoon’s current deplorable state. To kick start the project, in April this year, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), the authority running Accra's local government asked the squatters to pack and leave.

This case of has attracted the NGOs worrying about the human rights of the squattors, for example see this: Pending forced eviction of 30,000 dwellers at Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana

Over 30,000 squatters at a squatter camp at Agbogbloshie market-a suburb of Accra in Ghana referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah could suffer forced eviction shortly if a writ filed for an injunction to restrain the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) from carrying out its planned action is rejected by the High Court in Accra.
Knowing the particulars of the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, I'm actually glad that it will eventually be demolished. The current government in Ghana is all about due process, going by the book for 4 years with the squatters. This is unlike the famously arbitrary and often brutal practices of our Nigerian brothers that still seem to continue even under civilian rule (Obansanjo in civilian life still the unsentimental of the military general he was just decades ago).

Regardless, it is only a matter of degree between a squatter's camp and James Town. The point is to capture the totality of the experience.

One of my favourite novels is Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau - the wonderful 'word scratcher' of Martinique. I'll review it later but here's a synopsis:
"Through his narrator, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, a daughter of slaves, he chronicles 150 years in the history of Martinique, starting with the birth of Marie-Sophie's beloved father, Esternome, on a sugar plantation sometime in the early 19th century. It ends with her founding Texaco, a teeming shanty town built on the grounds of an old oil refinery on the outskirts of Fort-de-France, poised on the edge of a city that constantly threatens to engulf it".
Chamoiseau begins in the present with the arrival of an urban planner, whom the residents of Texaco mistake for Christ. Marie-Sophie must now become Texaco's protectress, for only she can dissuade the urban planner from ordering her anarchic quarter razed to the ground. Like Schehezarade before her in Arabian Nights, she relies on storytelling - wonderful, wonderful stories about the history of Texaco and its denizens.
"The fellow that we would call the Christ appeared. He was hit by the stone... When they brought him to me, I told him of Texaco like I just told you, from my Esternome to my Irene. He was sitting before me, finishing my aged rum, closing his eyes sometimes over scraps of pain, opening them to look at me intensely. When I was quiet, his eye shone a wee bit. Now that he knew the bulk of the stories, I told him he could unleash his bulldozers and raze all, and destroy all, but that he should know that we will stand, up front, me first, as from time immemorial.
The slum of Texaco is itself a character in the novel but it is this fierce sentiment of the people therein that interests me. Dickens, writing about poorhouses in the 19th century, would have approved of the panache of Chamoiseau, but surely would be dismayed that the conditions he so richly detailed back then are still fodder for art and the lot of so many today, indeed "as from time immemorial".

See also: The Books of Nima

For some Ghanaian literature on slums try Bill Marshall's Bukom, Mohammed Naseehu Ali's more recent The Prophet of Zongo Street and Kwesi Brew's poetry especially The Slums of Nima discussed here.

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On rich web applications, AlphaBlox and Oddpost

I had been meaning to comment about the past few posts over at Loosely Coupled but for some reason the comment entry fields don't show up in Mozilla or Firefox. The idea of having to launch Internet Explorer just to enter a comment didn't sit well with me, but I guess I will do it this once. This is part of a fairly deep vein of conversation in recent months on web applications, rich clients, the browser as a platform, or the location field as the new command line. A certain critical mass seems to have been reached, maybe it's the maturity of the browsers competing with Internet Explorer (especially Mozilla), the long history of security holes in MSIE or the publicity surrounding GMail and OddPost. I might as well join in on the commentary with a view from the trenches.

I work at Lotus software, IBM and was part of the tangled Halfbrain, Alphablox, IBM, Oddpost story at least last year when I worked on the "Simple Browser Productivity Components" - the spreadsheet, presentation and rich text editors that are now bundled with WebSphere Portal, tied to a document management system out of the box. For 6 months, my job was to 'port' these components to Mozilla; IBM for obvious reasons wants everything it ships to work on all platforms and browsers. The spreadsheet and presentation were licensed from AlphaBlox.

I wrote about some of my experiences at length last year in a discussion about "Applications vs. W3C DOM" and the adequacy of standards and browser support for rich web applications. Here's some further history and commentary:

The Halfbrain folks made a quite sensible decision that browser-based productivity applications would be a good thing, after all they, like everyone else, were starting to 'live' in the browser. More to the point, there's a market for good componentry and focused applications - lots of companies have developed spreadsheets, grids, charts, and various other editors and components. You may not make as much money upfront selling these components as shrink-wrapped software, like say a copy of Microsoft Office, but you can certainly tie it to services, other value-add features or even advertising and make money in other ways.

Sidenote: IBM has tried before to crack this market with Lotus eSuite (Java Office Suite for thin clients) which I also worked on after transfering from Lotus Freelance Graphics. Smaller companies have fared better because they understand that this is a niche market that one has to nurture and they didn't have the kind of insane revenue expectations that IBM had for that product (echoes of MS Office). 5 years on I hope/pray/(think?) that the company now understands what these kinds of products/technologies can achieve as part of its Portal and Workplace product portfolio and competitive strategy. One aspect of which is Linux. (cross my fingers since that's were the salary is coming from).

In any case, the Halfbrain folks didn't know any better, forged ahead, and miraculously a year later they managed to get a DHTML spreadsheet working. Everybody who sees it goes "Wow! How did you do that? In Javascript? With the then awful state of tooling for browser development?". It simply works; the UI looks, behaves and feels essentially like Excel, selecting cells, columns, drag and drop etc. Technically I can't say enough about that achievement (especially when I think back to the effort involved in the eSuite spreadsheets and presentation - there was still far more tooling available, and of couse, a rich programming model even in the less capable early 1.0 versions of Java than in the DHTML world). Keep in mind that it's a full spreadsheet engine, complete with calculation engine, dependency-checking, macro language. They were crazy enough to even at first target IE4. The programmers were are all new to Javascript development, but they were very disciplined and persevered. They lived on the bleeding edge of DHTML, had to invent things at times and workaround countless browser bugs. They talked somewhat with the MSIE team who made a lot of fixes for them in IE 5 and especially 5.5. As a very complex DHTML application, I'm sure it was a good test bed for Internet Explorer. In much the same way the folks at Opera last year jumped at a chance to test some of their DOM support with the speadsheet and presentation..

AlphaBlox, which does business analytics, sees this demo and buys HalfBrain. It makes perfect sense for them, everything is moving to the web. They integrate it with their packages, add conversion services from Excel, beef it up and offer it as part of their products.

Having learnt from the experience of getting the spreadsheet working, and realizing that what they have is essentially a very capable, general purpose DHTML library, one of the guys (now at OddPost/Yahoo) then heroically decides: why not do a Powerpoint clone? He goes ahead and writes a presentation editor !!!! This involves not just drag and drop, selection handling etc but most importantly text editing - ie. when you add your bulleted lists you need to edit the text. He managed to get this working even without using contentEditable support - it's a hack but users are non the wiser. It worked since IE 5.5 was up to scratch as a DHTML platform. This was an even greater bravura performance. Also, with greater facility with JavaScript, the code was smaller, more object-oriented. AlphaBlox also added some level of Powerpoint import capability.

The Javascript libraries for the spreadsheet and presentation amounted to around 60,000 lines of code, much of it shared and like any good DHTML toolkits had infrastructure APIs for menuing, windowing drag and drop, selection handling etc - the kinds of things that the DOM is missing since it's document and not screen-oriented. Sure, performance on very large spreadsheets may be a little poky and the recalc engine may need to be tuned, but those making really extensive use of spreadsheets will always stick to Lotus 123, Excel or more specialized packages. Similarly the drawing primitives of the presentation editor are not what you'd have in Illustrator but I think they are good enough. These kinds of editors target a different audience, they are 'worse' by definition. Of course 'worse is better', something that Christensen knows well.

Some of the HalfBrain folks left AlphaBlox with the idea to write yet another browser version of a productivity application - email and formed Oddpost - which Yahoo bought last week.

I don't really need to comment much about IBM's goals which are self-evident. Amy Wohl had a decent article from a while back about IBM's strategy Reinventing The Office: IBM Workplace. I'm sure the story and strategy has been tweaked and revised since. IBM, with a gap in its componentry, and looking to beef up its portal story helped with the development of the Midas component in Mozilla, the rich text editor, and then licensed the AlphaBlox spreadsheet and presentation. This is where I and others come in and that was last year's palava.

As far as I can tell, given the evolution of these products, the code got better, more object oriented, and more compact. Also the state of the browser has evolved, removing the need for most of the hacks of yesteryear. If I was starting the spreadsheet from scratch with the current capable browser platforms, it wouldn't be as much of a pipe-dream as back when HalfBrain started. (Joel per contra says 'never rewrite from scratch'). Given what I know about the effort it took on the Mozilla port, if Yahoo is so inclined, it should take a 6-8 months or so to have Oddpost working well in Mozilla, maybe less since there's obviously more staff. It would be perhaps a little longer in Safari or Opera since their DOM support (especially Level 2 Range) is weaker.

I talked to the Oddpost folks a few times last year; they were happy to hear that their first born babies were still being tended to - commiserating with me about some of the hacks they had had to implement earlier. With the advent of XMLHttp in MSIE, and IE 6 being a more robust platform for them, I think things were looking good for them as history has shown. Also since their app was their regular email client, they were eating their own dogfood and have every motivation to make it work.

I suspect that IBM could (and maybe should) have acquired them and perhaps there was the kind of usual flirtation/evaluation and general testing of the waters for building business relationships. With all the various mail clients and various technologies that a large company like IBM has, and the trendy push for Eclipse-based components, 'Javascript' components were a harder sell I would guess.

If the Oddpost code is anything like the AlphaBlox code I had to modify, they could probably jump start their porting effort considerably by using a lot the code I had to write or certainly the 10 or so common design patterns I encountered in doing this work. In a sense there is definitely a missed opportunity for IBM, we've missed out on an application compares favourably to many others. Of course, there would have been a difficulty in crafting a marketing message about how it fit in with the rest of the vast IBM software portfolio (read Domino, iNotes or any of the various mail apps we have). Again, I am glad that they've found a home at Yahoo, Oddpost is good technology and a good response to GMail. IBM acquiring Alphablox right on the heels of Yahoo taking up Oddpost is just another twist to this tale and likely just a coincidence.

Back to web applications. Mozilla is now the best platform for doing such development. It has the best standards support, is cross-platform and has the best devloper tools: DOM Inspector and Venkman, and perhaps even mindshare. In fact (market share be damned), it makes sense to first write yout rich web application for Mozilla. Your code will be cleaner to start off, will be better structured and will most likely work in other browsers - but that's my opinion, others say target MSIE first, just look at marketshare! - I would rather ignore that and get the compelling app.

As of Mozilla 1.5, XMLHTTPRequest support was well baked, and people have been using it successfully. I haven't tried Safari but I assume that it is not as good as Mozilla, though fast improving. Back then Opera was missing XMLHttpRequest, ContentEditable and DOM Level 2 Range support. We got some level of Opera support for free once the Mozilla work was done for the editors. The spreadsheet was functional and one could view presentations but not edit them because of the lack of range support and scriptable textareas.

The "rich web application" strategy is a very powerful appproach to development - and one we first used when I was when working on Lotus K-station (the post-mortem on that is for another day). It entails complete leverage of the browser which, after all, is the ubiquitous client. If the browser adds features you inherit them automatically. A short description of what I think is needed:

A client side framework for managing 'widgets'; a 'widget' is construed as a parameterized blob that produces markup (either in-line html or iframe-based). The data model is pushed to the client, the page is stitched together on the client, augmented by chrome and a code layer handles drag and drop, preview mode, incremental rendering and client side caching etc.

The idea is to fetch an HTML skeleton, decide what content you need, fetch that (as XML), and cache it wherever you get a chance. Render incrementally.

The pattern is simple:
Database <-> XML (Optional) <--> Javascript Object Bindings <--> UI Bindings (HTML) + UI management code

It's the Latency, stupid.

When dealing with distributed applications, it's the issue of latency that will determine which applications will rule. Users ultimately want applications that are 1. fast to load 2. capable and 3. intuitive. They want all these at the same time. This is where making increased use of the DOM should shine compared to most simple html based UIs. Of course, you have to work hard when writing DOM apps to figure out where in your architecture you can do things incrementally and where to cache. But that's what engineering is all about and how one would get paid.

In K-station the 'widget' was a portlet, your portal pages was the drawing canvas that the framework managed, and you could navigate from page to page, incrementally building your pages in memory and switch back and forth instantaneously. With client-side caching, all you're doing is toggling the css display property. In the presentation editor, the analog of the widget was a drawing object (text, image, group etc). GMail and Oddpost follow the same pattern and it is the incremental rendering and caching that distinguishes them in their performance characteristics and makes them 'feel' like desktop apps.

The major missing infrastructure piece in rich web applications is going offline and synchronizing with good security. But that's a story for another day.

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