Friday, August 27, 2004

Tradition and Modernity

A very good article on tradition and modernity by Justus Amadiegwu in the Guardian going over the nexus between superstition, tradition and modernity in Nigeria - this applies equally well to what I've lived through and know of Africa.

I thank God I am still here

I should be dead by now; my twin brother is. You could say I am living on borrowed time, but I prefer to say I am blessed.

Decades ago, my mother committed the then unpardonable sin of giving birth to twins. To western couples, particularly those on IVF, the joy of multiple births is tempered only by recalculation of the household budget; to an Igbo parent in those days, however, there was only one outcome of bearing twins or triplets: the babies' instant death.

There can be no greater contrast of cultural norms than the one between my life as a Nigerian in London and my Igbo upbringing

I am from Imo state but my wife is from Okija, Anambra. The town hit the news earlier this month when 50 bodies and human remains were discovered in the latest ritual killing. Some of the victims were mummified but at least four had been killed recently.

The international media were enthralled by the body count and tales of 'black' magic. It had taken a common murderer fraudulently plying his trade as a dibia, or witchdoctor, no time at all to traduce the traditions of the Igbo people.

The practice of worshipping idols is embedded in the culture. It was part of our ancestors' way of life for hundreds of years before the arrival of the white man and the Christian religion.

Paganism, idol worship, consulting oracles: I have practised them all and seen many things in the process, though I am now a Christian. [...]

Although I have moved away from many of the traditions of my fathers, there are some that remain with me and that I hope to pass on to my own children.

For example, Igbo tradition requires that before a couple who profess to be in love get married, the background of the potential family must be investigated.

If the family are found to belong to the Osuhs or Ohus, they are immediately rejected and the marriage proposal is automatically annulled. This is also the case if there is a history of sudden deaths, madness or long-term illnesses such as MS, leprosy or sickle-cell anaemia.

Talkativeness (especially in women) and flirtatiousness are equally undesirable characteristics and further causes for rejection.

Once the investigation is complete and the family has been cleared of all these traits, the couple receive the blessing of both families to proceed with the engagement.

Yes, mumbo-jumbo - ogwu, otumokpo, juju, voodoo - really does exist in some Nigerian traditions

I have lived through some of these things and I thank God that I am still here to tell the tale.

The context for the article is a touch morbid - ritual killings - obvious fodder for the tabloids - I would have wanted an unprompted commissioning of such an article since this is well worth discussing at any time. He does touch on the guts of the issue: that there is such a thing as culture and tradition and it is a powerful force in human affairs and it informs, competes with, and sometimes overwhelms those other forces in modern life: science, and mathematics, religion, capitalism, economics etc.

What's in the cultural mix as you grow up often translates into your so-called 'values' and has a great deal of influence on your behavior. Thus superstition is alive-and-well even in the highly developed West: What is the fear of Friday the 13th, after all? Why do so many buildings not have a 13th floor? Why is there no #13 in my apartment building? Opportunist politicians the world over exploit these tendencies in the rhetoric of their nationalistic/populist appeals. Dismissing people as pagan or primitive barely captures their essential complexity.

Superstition looms large in African popular culture. In appealing to local, oftentimes rural, audiences, the artist in traditional societies needs to draw on the motifs the audience is dealing with. Consequently African films, music, poetry and fiction cover this territory incessantly sometimes poking fun at these traditional belief systems sometimes lamenting their loss as they intersect with the modern world. This seeps out also into daily life, take for example this recent piece< blockquote cite="">Panic at Nigerian 'killer calls'

Nigerian mobile phone users have been anxiously checking who is calling them before answering them in recent days.
A rumour has spread rapidly in the commercial capital, Lagos, that if one answers calls from certain "killer numbers" then one will die immediately.

A BBC reporter says experts and mobile phone operators have been reassuring the public via the media that death cannot result from receiving a call.

He says that in such a superstitious country unfounded rumours are common. A list of alleged killer numbers has been circulated but no-one is reported to have died from answering the phone.

The BBC's reporter in Lagos, Sola Odunfa, says that the current scare story is reminiscent of a rumour that spread a few years ago that a handshake could cause sexual organs to disappear.

That rumour turned to tragedy as mobs rounded on people accused of making organs disappear. Despite the massive public interest, no-one was found to have lost their organs.

My uncle used to teach a course on these issues 30 years ago at the Harvard Law School looking at it from the legal standpoint (namely how to negotiate issues of law in the context of traditional authority and mores). To this day, this is probably what his students most remember him for, not his legal acuity or insight, but rather this meaty and almost sociological issue and the endless conversation and anecdotes it evokes.

My dad's friend, the philosopher Kwame Gyekye, has the standard academic works in this area at least as it relates to Africa: the general textbook African Cultural Values: An Introduction and the more heavyweight research Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience.

Both are well worth reading to brood over the essential complexity of human behviour. Although I've now lived 2 thirds of my life outside Africa, I can't deny the powerful appeal of some of those traditions. I may live the hi-tech software engineer's life, pose as the jaded and skeptical intellectual but African cultural traditions, warts and all, still contribute to this Koranteng's Toli thing.

See Also: The Nigerian Elections - A matter of confidence

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Tuesday, August 24, 2004


I'm behind.

Now August isn't a bad time to be behind; nobody expects things to get done in August: everyone is taking time off, it's the dog days of summer - paraphrasing one of Dubya's advisors in 2002, "You don't sell a war in August": you wait until after Labor Day before you start beating the war drums and start throwing mud about Saddam's WMDs or your opponent. This year though the mud has started earlier and I, am behind.

Of course there are lots of reasons to be behind. There's been the Athens Olympics (modulo NBC's awful, annoying coverage) and the Democrats invaded Boston for their convention. This is the time for spending time with friends and family, escaping with loved ones and all that good stuff. I am doing all those things, but somehow I feel like I'm behind and almost guilty for it. It's almost like the surging panic of mid-October when you realize just how much you have to do before Christmas comes around.

Perhaps it's because this year I took a week off in July in London to recover from the "project from hell" (I normally wait until Christmas before I take a holiday) and then I was sidelined for over a month with that nasty sinus infection... More likely it's the fact that I only have the american-standard 3 weeks of vacation a year. But I digress.

What's the evidence of my being behind, you ask? Well let's see:

Start with mail: I have 4004 emails in my Inbox - 1500 unread - that's just from this year. I was already behind in January and it's just gotten worse as the year progresses. Needless to say, 1500 is ridiculous - I'm sure there's at least 10 people who've given up on me. If you're still reading and I haven't replied to your missive, know that it's because I'm drowning in a sea of emails. I have far too many meetings day-to-day to catch up.

Since we're Lotus, we use Lotus Notes as our corporate mail - Notes is good for what it is: the canonical groupware application. It's very powerful, handles security well, supports replication and disconnected use, do calendaring and scheduling etc. It just isn't a great mail client (it's better now in 6.5 but that just makes it ok - it doesn't pamper you and when it comes to email we all want to be pampered - less spam etc). You can apply filters to handle mail but it doesn't do threading well and the fatal flaw is that you can't flag a mail for follow up easily or at least it's not obvious to me (Lazyweb request: someone help me there). I had hoped that the Reinventing email stuff would be my panacea but I don't know whether its benefits would really alleviate management of the volume of mail I receive.

Mailing lists.

So that's the corporate mail front; on to mailing lists. I lurk on a lot of mailing lists (25 or so: most about technology e.g midcom, end-to-end-interest, IP, XForms, www-dom etc, politics economics, others for fun) and only occasionally contribute when I have something intelligent to say. For these I've switched to GMail whose email threading, in their parlance 'conversations', is second only to the gold standard, the threading of Netscape Mail and News 3.0 - discarded and much lamented. GMail also has the virtue of labels and mails can be in multiple categories; the keyboard shortcuts help also. A great web application all around. In GMail, I have 800 unread mailing list conversations.

The blog situation.

For the past month I've been using Bloglines as my news aggregator to manage my normally voracious reading appetites. Currently I'm monitoring 105 feeds (sidenote: I probably monitor about 50 additional blogs but not in Bloglines since I promptly unsubscribe from feeds that only publish headlines). I have 2000 unread posts, my clippings folder has 50 unread items (the clippings folder is used to store blog posts that I thought would be interesting or deserving of re-reading). Presumably being blogs, these are link-heavy affairs and so perhaps that amounts to 3000 or so articles or posts of interest.

On the blog writing front, I have 15 drafts of various posts I've been meaning to do the Koranteng's Toli business on including a few technical things since I've gotten good responses to my previous mutterings on technology.


Back to reading, ideally, Bloglines would have a bookmarklet exposing their clipping feature, instead I use Furl to stash away articles of interest - always the printable version; I hate sites that break articles into 2 or 3 pages unnecessarily (unfortunately this is most of the commercial web these days... sigh). My Furl archive is down to 50 unread articles. I'm keeping up on that front but it's touch-and-go.

Reading on my computer

Before I started using Furl, I would save articles of notes on my computer. Of course I oscillate between 4 computers so I have to do the synchronizing thing. I'm not good at categorizing things, when I save articles locally I have 3 folders named articles, networks and design... but the categories are so fungible that there's much duplication and things are stored in the different folders on different machines; not to mention that I can't find articles on my hard drive. Most of the time though, I don't remember to save things of interest... Using the Furl it bookmarklet is making this close to painless: click a bookmark on the personal toolbar pick a category if need be, click save or save and email. Again I would prefer this integrated into Bloglines where I'm spending more and more time... On this computer I have 500 articles or academic papers - I'd guess 400 unread.

Surfing the Web

I've always maintained extensive bookmarks neatly categorized and cross-referenced. I use Mozilla since it has the best developer tools and standards compliance; also features like my good friend tabbed browsing make it the premier browser. I don't use Firefox even though it's smaller and faster because of a few things:

  1. Control-Q or Cmd+Q is not mapped to Quit as in Mozilla and Netscape, you have to do alt+F4 which I still haven't grokked.
  2. I want the Bookmarks button and menu in the personal toolbar, it's only in the top menu in Firefox. force of habit perhaps but my muscle memory makes me very conservative
  3. they've removed the New Tab button on the tab bar - a deal breaker for me.
  4. Integration with mail and Composer. I know you can graft Thunderbird on to Firefox but I also need Composer.
Incidentally, keyboard mappings, once learnt, are very difficult for me to switch. When i started out at Lotus, I used Microsoft Visual C 2.0 and learnt it's keyboard shortcuts. That tainted me and now I find it difficult to use other IDEs unless I can change their keyboard mappings... I keep a Visual Studio 5.0 or DevStudio disk around (or Visual J++ 1.1) and change the default keyboad mappings to emulate MSVC 2.0 just to use as an editor even though I'm trying to get into Eclipse, WSAD, JEdit, Notetab Light etc...

So on the surfing front: I monitor about 150 sites regularly on all topics - include about 40 online newspapers and journals . I'm about 2 months behind on most of these. On the 10 that were normally daily reads: I'm 2 weeks behind. I'd guess that's about 500 or so articles.

Voice mails

I finally cleared my backlog today since my mailbox was full... I had been 3 weeks behind.

Newspapers and magazines

1 issue behind on the Sunday New York Times, Boston Globe, Le Monde and The Guardian
3 issues behind with Sunday New York Times magazine
6 issues behind in the New Yorker
4 issues behind in the Atlantic Monthly
3 issues behind with Harpers
1 issue behind with Vibe - but that's no loss - such fluff these days their music writing is down to 3 pages - to think I was a charter subscriber.
6 issues behind with IEEE Computer and IEEE Communications
4 issues behind with IEEE spectrum and ACM Queue
3 issues behind with Java Developers Journal, Dr Dobbs, Java Pro, IBM Journal of Research, IBM Systems Journal
2 weeks behind with the Economist.
And there's a stack of about 50 or so other magazines that I picked up for some reason or other all unread. Staring at me from the floor

Well that's the worst situation: I'm 7 months behind on my Usenet stuff (,, comp.lang.javascript and all the various other newsgroups I used to contribute to or monitor including the mozilla groups). Oh I miss the flames and the advocacy...

And the list goes on... I suppose you think that I'm indulging in some peculiar navel-gazing with this post but there's actually a point beyond talking about how I'm failing to cope with information overload and my insane curiousity and aptitude for absorbing every little nugget of information (that's what being a son of a journalist and lawyer will do to you). There is method to my madness.

Novels: I've managed to read more novels of late than in the past 2 years and this has helped me regain balance. And I've even started on the 2 novels I had started a few years ago.

The blog: it's an outlet that's fostering conversation and creativity. I've begun writing again which is gift enough. A month into the blog and it looks well worth it. I'll reassess a year from now hopefully (they say most blogs are abandoned after 90 days or so - so we'll see if I make it that far)

Family and Friends - well that's been the payoff, I've been reconnecting with them and relishing it. I can't say I'm behind on that front. It gives one a great feeling to just luxuriate and relax with la famille and the old friends. And new friends pop along sensing this great comfort.

The Girlfriend - suffice to say it's been like a honeymoon - or what I imagine one could be.

So I'm behind... but so far, I like it.

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Saturday, August 21, 2004

Merlene Ottey - ageless wonder

The Athens Olympics have been looming on for a week (well actually 10 days now since the football tournament started a few days earlier) and was the occasion for the now familiar arc of the Ghanaian junior football team, the Black Meteors (the senior team are the Black Stars): extravagant heroics, awesome skill - Stephen Appiah's goal against Italy will end up being the goal of the tournament, followed by the unlucky/inexplicable collapse (naivete perhaps) surrendering a 2-goal lead to end up drawing with Italy 2-2; then the sequel, first dominating the game against Paraguay for 70 minutes but then falling behind 1-0 with 15 minutes to go; then the exhilaration, the improbable comeback with 2 goals in 5 minutes setting up the stage for them to be considered favourites in the tournament and needing only one point to progress to the quarter finals (Meteors sure to qualify). As the Telemundo commentators enthusiastically proclaimed: "L'equipo africane esta impressionante". But then the tragedy, losing to Japan (who had already been eliminated!) 1-0 and consequently being eliminated on goal difference by the Italians who had themselves lost to Paraguay. I wasn't in Ghana but I know what this guy means: and Ghana went quiet.

Much has already been said about the awful, jingoistic coverage of NBC: the annoying build-ups chronicling the american athlete's triumph over adversity - perhaps the loss of their pet cat when they were 8 years old - one interviewer actually begun her interview asking "so what did you have to overcome to get to this stage?" The lack of depth of analysis or any real interest in the strategizing in the sports, or the camera staying on the american athlete who finished out of the medals and not even focusing on the Japanese winner let alone interviewing them, instead getting the sob story... argh! but I digresss. At least this year, they are showing more sports on the other channels and sometimes it's even live. As I remember, in Atlanta 1996 there was 5 minutes of coverage of the football tournament and almost nothing was broadcast live even though it was in America.

In any case, track and field is what I focus on and imagine my surprise when I saw Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey running last night. I had a crush on Merlene Ottey back during the 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles - memorable because our circle of three families were stuck with an outbreak of chicken pox and nothing to do but itch, scratch and take in the Olympics. She had that tall, regal and imperious bearing and seemed to glide with fluid movements. Was it the long legs? Was it the butt? hmmm... Or rather what it that she runs the most beautiful bends in the 200 meters - perhaps second only to Evelyn Ashford in the annals of sprinting. She was also labeled as the Silver queen since she never won Olympic Gold (her career was nevertheless illustious)... What got to me is that if you do the math, this must be her 7th (!!!) Olympics. How is it possible to still be competitive? And it turns out that she's competing for Slovenia (how did that happen?).

Of course her story has not gone unnoticed: Sprinter Ottey Doesn't Act Her Age - Much Decorated 7-Time Olympian Continues Chase For Elusive Gold.

It's not just that Merlene Ottey is old at 44; it's that she's 44 and an Olympic sprinter. It's not just she's 44 and sprinting; she ran the second-fastest time Friday in the first round of qualifying. It's not just that at 44 she has sprinted into the Olympic semifinals in the 100 meters; it's that she's running past women less than half her age, teenagers who were born after she had competed in her second Olympic Games.

Ottey was pleading with reporters here earlier this week not to make age an issue. [..] Nobody can get past her age, and probably nobody should.

When she ran 11.14 Friday morning and finished second in her heat, it meant Ottey officially had competed in her seventh Olympics. We're talking Moscow in 1980, Los Angeles in '84, Seoul in '88, Barcelona in '92, Atlanta in '96, Sydney four years ago and now Athens. Thirty of the 63 women competing in the 100 here were born after Ottey made her first Olympic appearance. There has to be a portrait of her aging in an attic someplace because she looks like she moves, like someone half her age. And with world class competitors including Marion Jones, Kelli White, Torri Edwards and Katerina Thanou out of the field for one reason or another, Ottey has a chance to win a ninth Olympic medal. She's already the oldest Olympic medalist in track and field.

And while Olympic tennis player Martina Navratilova is older at 47, it's easy to argue the 100 meters trumps doubles tennis. The 100 meters requires the extreme burst one never has associated with age. So, four years after being essentially told she was too old to continue running by the officials in her native Jamaica, Ottey is back as a citizen of Slovenia, where she was living much of the year to train with her coach. It was impossible to miss during the second round of qualifying Friday night the irony of her qualifying by running in a lane between Sherone Simpson and Aleen Bailey, both Jamaicans.
The web being what it is there's no surpise that there's a Merlene Ottey fan club (or two) from which I snipped part of her impressive medal history:
Olympic Games (8)
3 silver 1996: 100 m, 200 m; 2000: 4 x 100 m
5 bronze 1980: 200 m; 1984: 100 m, 200 m; 1992: 200 m; 1996: 4 x 100 m

World Championships outdoors (14)
3 gold 1991: 4 x 100 m; 1993: 200 m; 1995: 200 m
4 silver 1983: 200 m; 1993: 100 m; 1995: 100 m, 4 x 100 m
7 bronze 1983: 4x100 m; 1987: 100 m, 200 m; 1991: 100 m, 200 m, 1993: 4x100 m; 1997: 200 m
And so the story continues... I'll be watching with avid interest over the next week.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

I wan bi President

While I'm posting poetry... Ezenwa-Ohaeto is a poet, short-story writer, biographer and literary scholar - he wrote the only good biography of Chinua Achebe. I am more interested in his own writing, his poetry and especially, the expressiveness of his pidgin stylings. Here's one my my favourites - long forwarded around in various email lists for the past decade - still particularly appropriate in this election season.

I wan bi President
By Ezenwa-Ohaeto

E get one dream
Wey dey worry me
I don dream am tire,

If I sleep small
Na di dream go come
If I close eye small
Na di dream go come
If I siddon for chair
say make I rest small
Na di dream go come
I think say na malaria dey come,

For night when I lie for bed
When hunger dey blow me
When I never see food chop
When I never see water drink
Na di dream go come,

E get one dream
wey dey worry me
Di dream bi say
I wan bi President,

I never see President hungry
I never see President thirsty
President no go worry for road
Police no go stop am for checking
President no go worry for house
Na government cook dey make food
Na government driver dey drive motor
Na him make I wan bi President
President dey go where e Re
President dey do wetin e like
if President wan travel
Na siren dey clear road
param. param piroo piroo
Every car go run comot for road too
Na President dey pass for road,

Dem go close di road
Dem go close even air too
Dem go take one car carry am
Dem go take another one dey follow
All dem vehicle tyre dey new
All dem vehicle engine dey new
Di seat go clean well well
Na President get country

I never see President walk ten mile
If e wan go give person message,
I never see President begin cry
If e no see motor wey go carry-am
I never see President push truck
From morning reach night
Even if e no find ten kobo chop,

I never see President go farm
With hoe wey don spoil finish
De day e dey plant crop for farm
Na him make I wan be President,

if you see President him servant
Dem body dey fat well well
if you see President him wife
She go dey smile as e dey happy
If you see President him children
Na guard go dey follow dem
Na special treatment dem go get

Na'im make I wan bi President,

President dey different different sha!
Some president dem dey
Wey no dey win election
Some president dem dey
Wey no dey lose election
Some president dem dey
Wey dey rule forever,

President dey different different sha!
Some President dem dey
Wey no dey win election
Some President dem dey
Wey no dey lose election
Some President dem dey
Wey dey rule forever,

President dey different different
Some President dem dey
Wey dey make ideology
Dey look Like person wey no see food chop
Some president dem dey
Wey dey worry make dem country better
You go see suffer for dem face
Some President dem dey
Wey dey kill person like dem bi flies
If you frown face na firing squad
If you say you no see food chop
Na bullet you go see chop one time
Some president dem dey
Wey don fat like person we dey for fattening room
President dey different different

If President go oversea
Na for red carpet e go walk
Na so so salute dem go dey make
Na special aeroplane go carry am
Na for best hotel e go sleep
Dem fit give am special woman sef for night
President fit take cocaine travel too
E fit carry heroin dey go
E fit bring hemp return
Dem no dey search President,
I wan bi President like Russia dem own
If him sneeze every country go begin cry
I wan be President like America dem own
If him cough every country go begin weep,

I wan be President
If I wan marry beautiful wife
I go order make she come
If I wan chop better food
I go order make dem go bring am
If I wan girlfriend sef
Na so I go send driver for evening,

I wan bi President
For work no go dey trouble me
I go dey make enjoyment as I like
Person go write my speech
Person go drive di car
I fit send person sef make e go read am,

I wan bi President If food no dey market I no worry If dem say price don rise I no go worry If salary no come on time I no go worry If petrol dey cost too much I no go worry If sanitation exercise dey I no go worry If na religion trouble dey I no go worry I wan bi President
Make people enjoy too
Wetin bi federal character
Every industry go dey there
Wetin bi disadvantaged area
Every appointment go go there
Wetin bi geographical spread
every promotion go bi for dem.
Federal character na for person wey no get broda,

I wan bi President
We dem go dey praise
Every street 4 go carry my name
I go rename all university for di country
All di town go carry my name

'if dem publish newspaper or magazine
Wey curse me even small
Na bomb I go take teach dem lesson

If I dey pass for road
Every person go stand dey wave
I wan bi President
Make I get plenty titles
Dem go call me de Excellency
I go bi Cornmander-in-Chief
I fit bi Field Marshall and Admiral
I go bi Lion of de Niger
I go answer Grand Commander of di Nation
Dem go address me as snake wey get forest,

My broda.
I wan bi President
Even for my Papa House

But na dream I dey dream.
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Monday, August 16, 2004

A war in nine stanzas

Calvin Trillin writes a wonderful brand of satirical poetry. The Nation and New Yorker - for whom he's been an inexhaustible source of commentary, describe him as a 'verse columnist'. His critics nitpick and would charge him with focusing on doggerel but they completely miss the point of the Plympton-like populist intellectual.

In many ways his work reminds me most of the agitprop of Anthony Burgess, not the popular Clockwork Orange side of Anthony Burgess but more the Burgess of Enderby, of Byrne , of Dead Man in Deptford or of Nothing Like the Sun. Namely, this is a poet eccentric, insightful, playful and not afraid of dipping into low-brow pop culture. And like any good poet or columnist he can touch a nerve in four lines or less. In any case, when he's inspired he hits all the spots. Herewith his latest op-ed piece:

A war in nine stanzas

We chose, in this millenium's first test,
Between two lesser heirs, who, at their best,
If they'd been born as sons of other pops,
Might hope to be elected sherrif, tops.
(At school, Bush was a dunce, there's no denying.
Young Gore did not stand out - and he was trying.
A frat-house honcho, Bush reprised that part;
Young Gore portrayed a piece of chain-saw art.)
In Florida, the fate of these two lads,
Appeared for days to hang on hanging chads.
'Twas Tilden-Hayes it put one in the mind of.
And then at last the Bush heir won, or kind of.

When job and Wall Street numbers both declined,
The pundits in the capital opined,
"If Bush the Second doesn't watch his step, he
Is going to be second one-term preppy."
And then, as many briefers had predicted,
Bin Laden and his terrorists inflicted
A mighty blow. With our own planes they smote us.
At first the president seemed not to notice:
While reading to a class, he didn't quit
When told the second tower had been hit.
Befuddlement was on his face writ large.
Then someone must have said, "Sir, you're in charge."

Though nothing showed Iraq had played a part,
That's where Bush hoped or swift response could start.
(then terrorist could count on what we'd do:
Attack us, we'll strike back, though not at you.)
We toppled first that band of Afghan loonies
Who'd let Bin Laden hide out in their boonies.
The Taliban were smashed in one fell swoop.
Bin Laden, though had plainly flown the coop.
Bush then forgot that name, and said, "In fact,
Iraq's the place that has to be attacked."
The war, Rove thought, with this one course correction,
Could still endure until the next election.

Bush said that our security was based
On getting this Saddam erased posthaste.
In crimes Saddam's C.V. was hardly lacking.
Though that was true when he'd enjoyed our backing.
But now he had these weapons we'd forbidden,
The White House said; we knew where they were hidden.
One saw Saddam Hussein, George Bush implied,
Behind that awful day our people died.
And therefore, Condeleeza Rice allowed,
The next attack might be a mushroom cloud.
And it could come so soon, so said the Bushies,
We had to act as once to save our tushies.

"To war!" the neo-connish hawks all said.
(They'd nested in the space in Bush's head.)
Saddam was Hitler, circa '39,
They said. It's up to us to draw the line.
Though they'd been draft evaders to a man,
They talked as tough as cowpokes in Cheyenne.
Iraq will pay the reconstruction bill,
And one by one, the Arab countries will
Democratize as fast as they are able,
Like dominoes that snap up from the table.

For us to fight to right what needed righting
Was right, they said, though others did the fighting.
As power for the good, we were exempt
From rules of war: the U.S. could pre-empt.
Old allies who did not see things our way
Were soon dismissed as weasels or passé.
While making fun of duped U.N. inspectors,
Hawks brandished facts from Chalabi's defectors.
And so we conquered Baghdad and the rest,
As Bush would on a flight deck soon attest.
He wore his flight suit for that panorama -
The suit he hadn't used in Alabama.

But what we'd set to righting went so wrong
It stirred some memories of the Vietcong.
Unduped inspectors came to realize
That Chalabi had fed us lies. Surprise!
There never was a flower-petal shower.
They saw us as an occupying power.
While we paid Cheney's cronies to rebuild,
Iraqis cheered to see our soldiers killed.
Insurgent forces and our troops still battled
As Jerry Bremer and his crew skedaddled.
For him Bush spun the spin that he could muster -
The sort of speech last used for praising Custer.

With kidnappings and bombings on the rise,
Our partners started saying their goodbyes.
And even Colin Powell has now confessed
The coalition seems less coalesced.
The older allies we had roundly dissed
Decline our invitations to assist.
No domino's snapped up as hopeful token
The Middle East is fixed. It seems more broken -
More anti-U.S. hatred than before,
More fresh recruits to fight a holy war.
In Europe, though, most people take the view
The danger's not from Muslims but Bush II.

The weapons that we went to war to get
Have not, as Bush might say, been found just yet.
And even Bush no longer seeks to blame
Iraq for when the towers were aflame.
You don't need clairvoyance to intuit
This war's against a man who didn't do it.
The man who did is laughing up his sleeve
As parents of our fallen soldiers grieve.
Although we live in color-code dread,
Most voters like the way he's fought the terror.
And Bush, when asked, could not recall one error.
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Saturday, August 14, 2004

Spectrum As A Public Good

Clay Shirky on The Possibility of Spectrum As A Public Good.

A very lucid article on spectrum and property rights using Wi-Fi as an existence proof and case study showing the benefits that might accrue from unlicensed spectrum and clear, open standards and interoperability. It's not a technical rant like David Reed is a fond of, not too 'political' like Kevin Werbach who you know only writes to try to influence the FCC and it's not simple exposition... Shirky does some of the best writing on technology in general (decentralization, networks, the web, publishing, software) and what he terms Social Software and communities in particular. Check out all his other writings or the Many-to-Many site.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

On Dentistry

As I sit here, my already big lips bloated beyond belief - the left side of my face is still in turmoil from the local anaesthetic the dentist applied a few hours ago - I thought I'd write a piece on dentistry. I've already written about my chewing stick theory of history and bemoaned the loss of Crest Smooth Mint Gel but that was more about teeth not dentistry. In any case, there'll be no conference calls or speaking engagments for me today...

I've seen dentists in 4 countries so far: Ghana, France, England and the US. Surprisingly the French experience was worse than the Ghanaian. Of course that has to do with the 'summer of cavities' (1985 perhaps?) when my two cousins and I were treated at the infamous 'Faculte de Chirurgie Dentaire de Nancy'.

Harken back if you will to seven Wednesdays in a row wherein three children (after the first week my uncle and aunt let us go on our own) would get on the bus in Vandoeuvre and make the hour and a half trek to this teaching college to be human guinea pigs for dental students who would inspect and imagine cavities, proclaim the need for fillings and proceed to botch the procedure. So we'd head back the next week and the filling would not have set or, more likely, would have fallen out in the interim. Repeat and rinse seven times like I alluded to. I can't remember any pain inflicted by these excuses for dentists (my cousins have a different story), but it got tiresome after the third week or so. I can't quite imagine what my uncle and aunt were thinking: perhaps a lesson on the theatre of the absurd, Kafka, or some bonding or character-building something or other. The upside, I guess, was that we learnt the value of brushing teeth and avoiding dentists at all costs especially if they were akin to Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. You don't want to be poor Dustin Hoffman strapped into a chair with no anaesthethic as the Nazi draws closer to pull your teeth...

If France was epic and eventful, and Ghana rudimentary, dentistry in England was a little better - the caveat being that, with the NHS being what it was, you had to wait a little longer for care. It also helped that the Indian dentist I had was very chuffed/impressed by my heading to Harvard - like Nigerians, Indians are much impressed by brand names in higher education. Much ink has been spilt about bad teeth and Englishmen and perhaps poor old Martin Amis with his dental travails is the best exemplar:

Amis spent $30,000 on [his teeth], having a[n American] dentist anchor them to bone with titanium rods. The money came from the $800,000 advance he received for the new novel, "The Information" It was a sum that whipped a sizable portion of the London literary establishment to fury. Some of its pillars seized on that costly dental work to aim wounding remarks at Amis. Someone quoted his famous writer father, Kingsley, as saying he couldn't read Martin's novels because they were too scatological and the language too self-conscious. It was noted with approval that Martin's face fell when he heard this.

"Some said I wanted this money to have my teeth capped so I can look like a South American movie star,"' Martin Amis said yesterday. "Others asked, 'Why isn't he having it done here instead of the United States?' There's a strain of anti-Americanism in it all."
Dentistry is completely different in the US. The stereotypes are all correct: everyone's teeth look straight, shiny white, and healthy or, if they are teenagers, they are wearing braces on their way to dental perfection. You wonder if this is the same dentistry as elsewhere - it's like trying comparing the Premier League to your weekend pickup games in the park; there's just no comparison. I mean take the entire profession of "Dental Hygienists" for God's sake - who'd would have thought it: people devoted just to cleaning and polishing? Americans spend so much on their teeth and their dentists oblige with this amazing professionalism and division of labour. Amis's $30,000 is probably not even an extravagance - think of dentists in Beverly Hills.

Needless to say, I am the happy recipient of the fruits of American dentistry. The whole choreography of wedges, burnishers, smoothers, pastes, explorers, x-rays etc; the exquisite sequences of dentist and assistant operating in tandem once the hygienist has finished with you and made your teeth shine with loving polish; the seriousness of the care, the fussing and fretting about every little nick in your bicuspids...

For some reason when I started at Lotus, I didn't understand that you just had to call up any old dentist and simply ask whether they took your insurance. Unlike primary care, you didn't have to choose a dentist upfront - sidenote: this seperation of medical from dental and optical care is another peculiar Americanism, but more on the scam that is American healthcare later. So I went for something like 3 years without seeing a dentist in America - continuing to visit the UK for that kind of care when I remembered. I can remember the scorn of the American dentist (Dr Yun?) at the quality of work the UK dentists had performed which she proceeded to promptly remedy. Indeed I think the overwhelming fussing that I received was to compensate for the supposed deprivations I had endured at those rank amateurs.

So anyway, all this was passing through my head as I lay in the basement in that lovely brown chair, while Doctor Gordon was doing due diligence on me, making me hold the suction tube - they always like to give you something to do, I guess it mitigates any nervousness - and I looked out through the window at the feet of the occasional passers-by wondering if they could see the intricate engineering tasks taking place on the operating theatre of my bottom molars. I guess this is why Americans feel they live in God's own country.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

In appreciation of Telepocalypse

Martin Geddes writes about the end-to-end principle and telecom issues on his Telepocalypse blog. Other than say Andrew Odlyzko on the history of telecommunications, David Isenberg as the great popularizer of the Stupid Network, Bob Frankston, David Reed, Scott Bradner who one might term, the intellectual braintrust, or perhaps the folks who lurk on the end-to-end interest mailing list, diving deep in the bowels of TCP/IP, I don't know anyone who has more fully internalized the lessons of the end-to-end principle.

Unlike some of the others I've cited, his is a less academic but more pragmatic take - a practitionner's view from ground level, as it were. More to the point his writing is so lucid and the analysis so trenchant that I encourage everyone I know to simply 'follow him around', read everything he writes and revise their business plans, investments etc accordingly. Read all his opinion pieces and come back buzzing with insight at the opportunities and pitfalls in this wonderfull networked world we live in. Take for example this post about the intersection of the content industries with telecom: Internet didn't kill the video star

Money arrives in the video entertainment business in two buckets. The customers directly pay for content that satisfies their desire for televisual narcosis. And advertisers pay to insert marketing messages to suggestible semi-hypnotized viewers. That’s all.

Now, let’s look at the economics in more detail. You can only increase the amount people pay directly by extending the duration and intensity of their narcosis. The scope for improvement is baselined by the current depth of their TV trance. Before multi-channel cable and satellite, you couldn’t get a good fix on four or so terrestial channels. But given some non-stop movies, sport and cartoons, and you were off. Hence the cable and satellite TV companies made a bucket load satisfying an unmet need.

A TV channel is essentially a bundled product, in the classic marketing sense. TiVo enables you to create your own bundle. [...] But the incremental improvement from TiVo is relatively small. Why? Because if you didn’t like the bundle you were just watching, you can easily switch to another one. And they’re conveniently labelled for you to make an instant judgement on how likely you are to want that new bundle. The substitute product for TiVo is the raw remote control handset.

Think of it this way. Terrestial TV is like a nice cup of tea. Multi-channel TV is cocaine. Video-on-demand is methamphetamine. TiVo is just washing your meth down with a stiff espresso.
And the ensuing analysis is equally perceptive. A daily read for sure... I'll be writing more about the end-to-end principle in coming weeks but thought you should know where I get my source material from.

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Friday, August 06, 2004

Rick James is dead

The words fail me... Rick is dead... The cold-blooded superfreak, the man who put the funk into your back and wrested loose your woman from her underwear is dead...

Just 2 days ago, there was an award show on BET at which he appeared, in full flow, along with Teena Marie to standing ovations... He had lived a hard life, a fast life dealing with the fame, the women, the drugs (mary jane anyone?) and he had fallen further than most - prison was the least of it.

And yet he emerged strong after conquering his demons. He would never be eminence grise (perhaps there was too much controversy) but he certainly was revered.

Dave Chappelle brought him back to great acclaim over the past few years with knowing comedy sketches - and was even this week reported to have signed on to a film based on Rick's autobiography. I'm Rick James, Bitch!!! is perhaps the slang saying of the past year. We laughed loudly, but we looked at him with fondness, knowing his peccadillos, his weaknesses and how out-of-control he had been. But there was always humour, there was always a keen musical intelligence there. He had the street credibility and who could say that we wouldn't have indulged as much given the same opportunities.

Musically, he had the funk on lockdown for almost a decade. Before Prince, there was Rick James. He had absorbed the lessons of Sly Stone, James Brown, Bootsy Collins and George Clinton and the sensibilities of Hendrix and Neil Young. It was Rock, it was soulful, it was percussive, it was pop, it crossed-over, it was party music, it was love music and there were many imitators... Those who worked with him came off the better and were part of the legend... Even when he took on Hip Hop late in his career, he came off correct, check out Loosey's Rap with Roxanne Shante from the Wonderful album.

Who knows what caused his death, heart attack? Did he relapse, was it a return to drugs of yore? or was it just too much hard living? The cause of death doesn't matter: a shining star has flamed out and our world is a little darker. I would have paid anything for another album from Rick.

Get the Anthology, get Street Songs, get the live albums and listen to the man... Play it loud and remember him.

I'm Rick James. Bitch!

[Update] More reading on Rick James

Tony Green at Slate has another insightful, and knowing, piece on Rick: I'm Rick James, B*tch - The artist behind the Super Freak. I'd also like to hear what Nelson George or Arthur Kempton would have to say but haven't found anything yet - Google still takes a while to index things.

See also Rick's last interview to read the man 'kicking knowledge' and 'telling us what time it is', full of choice quotes, read it all:

Rick James: Fire And Desire
Rick James: Fire And Desire Pt. 2
Rick James Part 3: The Music Industry
Rick James Pt. 4: Political Minded
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Thursday, August 05, 2004

Me'Shell Live in Montreux

Here's are links to the entire 99 minute concert by Me'Shell NdegeOcello at the Montreux Jazz festival with her latest project: the Spirit Sextet. This time she goes jazzy and the band is very loose. She's been going through a very prolific phase and recorded this project at the same time that she delivered Comfort Woman which was rather galactic soul. Her main problem is that her record company don't know what to do with her and got caught up with the 'straight or gay' issue rather than the realizing that all that is a sideshow: like Prince, she's really just all about the music. What an amazing bassist.

Note: the older Realplayer link to the concert that seems to have disappeared

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The Jazz playlist - Summer 2004

I had been looking for this album for the longest time; I think I first heard it one Thanksgiving in Delaware, coming off the train and feeling any homesickness a hectic Harvard semester had inflicted evaporating as my uncle drove me home and this loomed in the background - that great family feeling... I love Midnight Blue - the consensus Burrell masterpiece; but as far as jazz guitar goes, I haven't strayed too far from Wes Montgomery and Grant Green and maybe George Benson.

Ben Webster - At the Renaissance
Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown
Art Blakey - Moanin

This is some of the finest bluesy, laidback jazz you're likely to hear. It's reminiscent of the lyrical atmosphere of Ben Webster's At the Renaissance session. Contrast Burrell's 'Round Midnight to Webster's Georgia on My Mind. Mellow and soulful.

Proof that lightning does strike twice in the same place. I had long thought that Sarah Vaughan's album with Clifford Brown was the pinnacle of albums pairing jazz vocals and horns. I was wrong, there are 2 peaks in this category - mixing my metaphors. The difference here is that the presence of the Cannonball Adderley band is more prominent and Nancy isn't featured on every track. In Sassy's album, the focus is on her voice (did she ever sing a false note?) and Clifford Brown's pyrotechnics are delivered in small doses. This album in contrast is a more balanced affair, two incredibly talented and tasteful stars playing with great empathy and an organic band.

(okay, okay, I know I'm ignoring Billie, Ella, Abbey, Nina, Betty and others)

A live album from one of the great stylists - she swoops, soars, scats, is brassy, is shy, flirts with you, seduces you but lets you know that she's too hot to handle, more woman than you can deal with. Oversized talent, a diva who never got her full dues, someone who like Ella was at home with the great songbooks of her time but who insisted on her own compositions and arrangements... A force of nature at her best on this album - you can feel the audience get into it and push her further... Her album with Ray Charles is similarly a great encounter between scary talents that ignored boundaries. The remixers (house, techno, garage) have rediscovered her in recent years and who can blame them.

Long before Biz Markie talked about 'making the music with your mouth", Jon Hendricks was there. He is the essence of scat and on the title track, which is unlike anything you've heard before, he reinvents the classic Miles Davis tune about the eponymous drug dealer, Freddie Freeloader. His friends are along for the ride and each take a solo and what solos: George Benson, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin !!! they add lyrics to the tune and replicate the intonations of the original instruments with their own amazing voices - all backed by a rhythm section including members of the original Miles Davis Quintet. The rest of the album is similarly playful; Hendrick's has made a great living but was unfortunately typecast as a gimmicky singer because of his his heavy stylized approach to his vocals.

Late era Satchmo, but one of his best albums; with great empathy for the bluesman who started it all, W.C. Handy. St. Louis Blues and Long Gone alone are worth the price. This is what blues is all about and some of the solos are very emotional; it also shows the extreme versatility of Armstrong's band.

Milt Jackson and Roy Ayers were not the only ones on the vibes. A great, and much sampled outing of soulful jazz - slightly Latin tinged (see Oye Como Va). Mellow rare groove and fodder for blue breakbeats that the best DJs would pull out when they want to impress you. A musician's musician.

A greatest hits compilation of the composer pianist best known for This Here, Dat Dere and Moanin' which was popularized during his stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Also very heavily sampled (see A Tribe Called Quest) and I can see why. Fodder for rare groove.

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Sunday, August 01, 2004

On Catholicism

I am not a Catholic - raised Anglican and with a healthy scepticism towards the Vatican (the broad strokes of my critique might include sustained regressiveness - read attitude towards contraception, osbcurantism - read Galileo, hysteria - see The Inquisition, stigmatization of human sexuality - read paedophile priests, corruption - read World War II or the thing that gave us the Mafia). Now those might be unfair, stereotypical charges against an institution, it's not a commentary on religion. I get complaints that I am actually not in the least bit religious. I'd reply: undemonstrative maybe, and I certainly don't wear it on my sleeve - perhaps I lean more towards the Quaker tendancy for quiet contemplation...

Leaving all that aside though, the Catholic church is forever fascinating and has come up 3 times recently. The first is that I've been reading David Lodge's comedy of manners How Far Can You Go? which is a wry look at how a group of 10 or so young catholics lived over a quarter century beginning in the 50s, through the increasingly permissive 60s ending in the jaded seventies and how the church informs their lives. The second is the Vatican's just released "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World." The third is learning that a 95-year-old nun is France's favourite woman. Food for thought as always

A woman's place is to wait and listen, says the Vatican:

The Vatican yesterday depicted what it claimed were women's characteristic traits: 'Listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.'

In its most important statement on the role of women in almost a decade, the Roman Catholic Church said these virtues of the Virgin Mary were ones that women displayed 'with particular intensity and naturalness'.

The 37-page statement, published in full yesterday, was written by the Pope's top theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As a statement of official doctrine, it would have been read, and very likely amended, by the Pope himself before publication.

The document, which will prompt a fierce debate about the attributes of women, added: 'Although a certain type of feminist rhetoric makes demands 'for ourselves', women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions that elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection [of others]. This intuition is linked to women's physical capacity to give life. Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way.'

In his 'Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World', Ratzinger takes aim at 'currents of thought that are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women'. Chief among these is a tendency to 'emphasise strongly, conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism'.

It implied that 'women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men'. Such confrontational thinking was 'leading to harmful confusion ... which has its most immediate and lethal effects in the structure of the family'.

Gender war also encouraged a perilous blurring of the distinctions. 'To avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning.'

Such a view ignored qualities that arose from a woman's unique ability to give birth. This 'allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its responsibilities. A sense and a respect for what is concrete develop in her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society,' says the first high-level pronouncement on gender issues since the Pope's 1995 'Letter to Women'.

Ratzinger uses the document to argue that, because they have something unique to contribute, 'women should be present in the world of work and in the organisation of society'.

The comments drew a mixed reaction from feminists and women writers. Erin Pizzey, founder of the international women's refuge movement, said: 'I don't think the Catholic Church, whose priests and bishops cannot marry, is in a position to make such statements. It is one of the most emotionally illiterate organisations I know, and it needs to put its own house in order first.'

But Catherine Pepinster, editor of Catholic paper The Tablet, said the comments would resonate with many women. 'For feminists to rubbish it is a knee-jerk response. It does make a distinction between the sexes, but it also points out that women have a big role to play in society.'

However, combining work and family has 'characteristics different from those in the case of men', says the document, which argues for a 'just valuing of the work of women within the family'. Ratzinger does not say how this is to be done, but it is clear he sees it as a way of encouraging women to spend as much time as possible in the home."
The Post's slant is slightly different: Vatican Letter Denounces 'Lethal Effects' of Feminism: Document Outlines Formula for Man-Woman Relationships
The Vatican issued a letter Saturday attacking the "distortions" and "lethal effects" of feminism, which it defined as an effort to erase differences between men and women -- a goal, the statement said, that undermines the "natural two-parent structure" of the family and makes "homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent."

The sharp critique was contained in a document issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a chief adviser to Pope John Paul II and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department in charge of defining Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The 37-page document also outlined the Vatican's formula for relationships between men and women, calling for "active collaboration between the sexes" and rejecting subjugation of women.

The statement was the latest Vatican salvo against trends it regards as undermining its teachings on sexuality and the family. Vatican officials have assailed abortion and contraception; politicians who support abortion through legislation; and legalized same-sex unions. The pope approved the document, titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World."

Catholic feminists in the United States said the letter presented a caricature of feminism as antagonistic toward men and trying to deny any difference between the sexes. They said feminism seeks equal rights and respect for both genders.

"The demonization of feminism is most disturbing," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group for abortion rights, who said her blood pressure "shot up 20 points" when she read the letter.

"It takes extreme positions that may have been historically held by five people and casts them as if they were held by every woman," Kissling said. "The feminism I know is all for partnerships and is all for empowering both men and women. The feminism I know does not ignore the fact that there are sexual differences."

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a feminist theologian at Harvard Divinity School, said the document restated positions the Vatican has taken many times and that the only surprise was its timing. She said church leaders may be feeling some urgency to combat same-sex marriage, as well as renewed pressure to consider ordaining women in response to the worldwide scandal over sexual abuse by priests.

"It has some positive things in it, but the political function of the document is the same as the ones before," Fiorenza said. "It's trying to make a theological case, which they're really not able to make, against the full equality of women in the church."

Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said on Vatican Radio that the aim of the letter was to critique two current strands in feminism: one that emphasizes "a radical rivalry between the sexes" and the other that seeks to "cancel the differences between the sexes."

The letter argued that "the obscuring of the difference . . . of the sexes has enormous consequences," including inspiring ideologies that "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."

While assaulting what it said were the bases of feminist ideology, the letter tried to tackle the practical difficulties and inequities that feminists also decry. It appeared to attempt to strike a balance between a Catholic ideal of women raising children at home and the reality that many work outside the home.

Women ought not be stigmatized for desiring the life of a homemaker, the letter argued. "Indeed, a just valuing of the work of women within the family is required," it said. Women who choose to work in the labor force should be awarded a proper schedule and "not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress," it said.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the national Catholic weekly America, said in an e-mail message that "although most American feminists would express their ideology differently than the Vatican, on the practical level they are on the same page (in terms of equality in education, politics, workplace) except on abortion and women priests." If there are differences, he added, "it is probably on the relationship between men and women in the family, not in society. . . . For the Vatican, the ideal is that a father be paid well enough so that a mother can stay home and raise the kids."

The letter called for the Catholic Church to take advantage of "feminine values" that include listening, understanding, caring and faithfulness. Although women are banned from the priesthood, their role in the church is not "a passivity inspired by an outdated conception of femininity," the letter maintained.

Almost a third of the letter was devoted to biblical declarations about the sexes. "From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are different, and will remain so for eternity," it said. Tracing the story of Adam and Eve, it said original sin opened the way to relations between man and woman "in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other."

In the afterlife, the letter stated, men and women will continue to be different, but sex will come to an end. "The temporal and earthly expression of sexuality is transient," it declared.
95-year-old nun is France's favourite woman
One might have expected Sophie Marceau to win, or perhaps the more establishment figure of Catherine Deneuve, or even the sultry Juliette Binoche.

Instead, the title of France's favourite woman was awarded last week - to the bewilderment once again of the country's film and television elite - to a 95-year-old nun who spent much of her life living alongside rubbish sweepers in the slums of Cairo.

This is the third year running that Soeur Emmanuelle has fought off more glamorous candidates to win - something that surprises even her. But she has a clear sense of perspective: 'They're not going to ask for my popularity ranking at the gates of heaven. No one is going to inscribe my score on my tombstone.'

Her supporters claim that her enduring popularity says much about the French nation's thirst for philanthropic values in a society swamped with consumerism and the trivia of reality TV.

A nun makes an unlikely partner for the French football captain, Zinédine Zidane, who was named France's most popular man in the same list published by Le Journal du Dimanche, researched by the polling organisation Ifop. Zidane, however, only made it to the top of the list because Abbé Pierre, an elderly charity worker and priest who was ranked first a total of 17 times, bowed out of the contest after his win last year.

The appeal of the bespectacled, hunched and wrinkled figure of Emmanuelle is not immediately obvious, even though her life story is as familiar to glossy magazine readers as the biographies of the nation's leading television stars. Born Madeleine Cinquin in Brussels in 1908, she spent her early childhood travelling between Paris and London with her parents, who were manufacturers of expensive lingerie. She was six when her father drowned - an event she witnessed. She went on to gain a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne before taking her vows in 1929.

In 1971, on the brink of retirement, she was so revolted by the conditions of rubbish collectors in Cairo that she decided to make her home among them. Her domestic popularity began when she returned home in 1993, having become too elderly for slum life. She became a media hit, impressing talk-show hosts and audiences alike with her straight-talking approach and passion for her work.

'People are shocked when they hear her speak. There's a disconnection between her appearance as an old and fragile nun and her ability to shake the French nation's collective consciousness,' said Trao Nguyen, the director of her charitable foundation.

Her popularity is also tied up with France's latent Catholicism. 'It is very strange that at a time when France's churches are emptying and there's a serious deficit of people wanting to take orders, that the country should vote for a nun as its favourite female figure,' Jérôme Fourquet, the director of reseach at Ifop, said. 'But although the Church has much less influence, people still aspire to its values, which she embodies.'

Emmanuelle moved effortlessly from Cairo slums to the salons of Paris, where she charmed politicians and benefactors into donating money to her charities, which support deprived children around the world. President Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, the finance minister, have both found time to visit her in her nunnery in southern France.

Emmanuelle has also won hearts in France by her strangely secular approach to life. Her religious views are maverick; she approves of contraception and the idea of priests marrying. She is not interested in setting up a religious following, as Mother Teresa did, and is careful that her charity work should be independent of the church. Indeed, she dismisses comparisons between herself and Mother Teresa as 'ridiculous'. 'It's like comparing a mouse and a mountain,' she says.

Recently she branched out into philosophical tracts, and this April published What is Life For?, which has sold around 120,000 copies.

Emmanuelle came fifth in France's 50 most loved personalities, just behind the actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. Marceau was ranked ninth, while neither Binoche nor Deneuve made the list.

France's politicians fared poorly: the former socialist health minister, Bernard Kouchner, who helped to found the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, was the highest listed at number 34 - four ahead of Chirac.
It's interesting that the Church is still very relevant and can continue to make pronouncements on such weighty issues as 'the role of the woman' (although in much of the west, it's take on things like contraception divorce or abortion is mostly ignored. I wonder how changing mores mesh with the doctrine of papal infallibility.

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King of Dancehall

There's a long profile of Beenie Man dancehall's reigning crown prince. As I've noted recently, I've been listening to reggae more closely of late, mostly in the more traditional vein (ska, roots, lovers and dub) or with the concious message but of course there is always the dancehall. In Jamaica, it is always been about the dance and about the riddim. Beenie Man would be a Hall of Fame performer simply on the basis of "who am I?" or the Fiesta riddim from last year. Anyway he's apparently back in business after a near fatal car accident unconscious for something like seven hours. Like Kanye West's Through the Wire (hip-hop), or Anthony Burgess being diagnosed as having a cerebral tumor, and given twelve months to live with the consequent flood of novels, it seems there's nothing like a near-death experience to focus one's creative juices and produce great art.

But mostly, he performs. Beenie Man, now 32, has been chanting on microphones in Kingston dancehalls since he was 5. He's charted a whopping total of 62 No. 1 hits in Jamaica, with occasional crossover success here. After "Who Am I," Beenie Man became a go-to guy for pop, hip-hop and R&B artists looking to boost their street credentials by collaborating with dancehall artists. He's recorded with Janet Jackson, Wyclef Jean, Lil' Kim, Mya and Kelis.

Dancehall is fiercely competitive and its core audience is both fickle and unforgiving, which is why few artists are able to hang on to the kind of success that Beenie Man has sustained for 13 years. It's easy to explain his long run: For one thing, he is prodigiously talented, clever at wordplay and brilliant at placing his voice within spare rhythm tracks. For another, he is daring, stretching beyond the parameters of dancehall to other genres. His exceptional 1997 album on the small VP Records label, "Many Moods of Moses," one of the greatest single-artist dancehall albums ever, included traditional reggae, gospel and a country track recorded in Nashville with Garth Brooks' backup band.

But perhaps most important, even when he has courted international audiences, Beenie Man has always been careful to cater to his core audience back home in Jamaica. He releases a seven-inch single there every two weeks, and regularly turns out dub plates or "specials," recordings made expressly for mobile sound systems. These homegrown industries are more important to Jamaicans than the American major labels and the albums they release.

"Jamaica don't pay your album no mind, yunno, they pay what you doin' in Jamaica mind," he says. "If they see you on the TV, well great. He's on BET, he's on MTV, he's on VH1. . . . But what you do in Jamaica, that's what count. You could be the biggest thing in America, if you not doing nothing in Jamaica, you're not remembered."

There's another secret to Beenie Man's success: One of his favorite song subjects, sex, is also of great interest to many listeners. Like many Beenie Man tracks before it, "Dude" celebrates Beenie's sexual prowess -- "You want a proper fix, call me / You want to get your kicks, call me," he announces as the song opens. And in the chorus, a young woman who goes by "Ms. Thing" praises Beenie as "a dude with the wickedest slam" and "a one, two, three holler man."

Set to an infectiously chirpy rhythm track known as "Fiesta," "Dude" worked its way to the mainstream the same way as dancehall crossovers before it, including Sean Paul's breakthrough hit, "Gimme the Light." First it was played in Jamaican dancehalls as a seven-inch single. Then hip-hop clubs and hip-hop radio stations on the East Coast picked it up; by December it was getting airplay on New York's influential Hot 97 and Miami's Power 96. From there it went to what's known in the industry as "rhythm" stations, such as Washington's WPGC 95.5-FM.

"It pretty much peaked around June, but as it's peaking in some areas, it keeps growing in others -- Top 40 radio has just discovered it," says Beenie Man's manager, Patrick Moxey. "BET got the video, played it to death, and dropped it as MTV was just discovering it."

It's very possible that Sean Paul's international success gave Beenie Man the freedom to make his current album the way he wanted to, but that's something the self-proclaimed "King of the Dancehall" isn't ready to admit. He says he had planned "Back to Basics" before "Dutty Rock" had become a hit.

Beenie Man's manager, Moxey, is more circumspect. "I think Sean Paul's success opened a lot of doors for reggae music and for Beenie Man included," he says.

Moxey says that Beenie Man was the only dancehall artist signed to a major label for four years before Sean Paul broke through. "When Beenie Man was keeping the torch for reggae alive with the mainstream, that helped Sean Paul get a leg up as well. Sean Paul walking in the door and having this smash . . . has helped make a legitimate slot now at every urban rhythm and Top 40 station for a reggae record on their playlist, and that's definitely helping all reggae artists." [...]

In 1991, at the age of 21, Beenie Man performed at a concert in Kingston honoring Nelson Mandela, when he made a misstep that could have cost him his career. He performed "Green Arm," about people with malodorous armpits. "I think I sing the wrong song at the wrong time," he says. The audience booed him offstage.

"I never felt it. I just came off the stage and said, 'Love, respect, manners, I see you next time.' " But he swore to himself that he would never be booed off the stage again. He disappeared for a year or so, and when he came back, it was with a string of extraordinary hits -- including "Slam," "World Dance," "Modelling," "Stop Live in a de Pass," that turned him into a superstar at home and earned him a cult following elsewhere when they were released on the 1995 album "Blessed." Unlike many dancehall deejays of the time, Beenie Man didn't growl. Instead he singsonged his way through chants and rhymes, punctuating them with squeaks, squawks and signature phrases -- "Oh, na, na, na, na!" and "God knows!"

"Slam," which suggests that ghetto girls are sexually superior to their uptown counterparts, caused some controversy in Jamaica, where distinctions between uptown and downtown are sharply drawn. The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper damned it as "one of the most spectacular lies of the 1990s." Beenie Man chuckles. "The uptown girls not gonna like to know that the ghetto girls can have sex better than them," he says.

Does he really think that's true?

He shrugs and smiles. "Not really. It's just things like that sells. Controversies always work. Trust me."

The most enduring tempest of his career has to do with his on-again, off-again feud with another dancehall star, Bounty Killer, which dates back to the early '90s, when Bounty Killer accused Beenie of lifting his style. Since then, the two have gone after each other onstage and on record, most famously in a 1993 "clash" at the annual Sting dancehall festival.

When "Who Am I" became a huge hit for Beenie Man, Bounty Killer raised a stink about the song's lyrics, seemingly just wordplay about a BMW: "Zim zimma, who got the keys to my bimma / Who am I, the girls dem sugar /How can I make love to a fella/ In a rush, pass mi da keys to my truck." At issue was the ambiguous line "How can I make love to a fella." It all came down to punctuation -- did "in a rush" modify "make love to a fella" or the request for the keys? No big deal anywhere but in Jamaica, where homosexuality is illegal and performers often record and perform songs with homophobic lyrics.

"That was started by player haters tryin' to be haters," Beenie says now. "How can I make love to a fella in a rush? I don't make love to fellas, whether in a rush or take time or outside or nuttin'. You know, I'm 'de girls dem sugar,' that's what I do."

Several years later, it was Beenie Man's turn to take the low road when Bounty Killer appeared on No Doubt's "Hey Baby." In the song's video, drummer Adrian Young appears naked, anathema for hard-core dancehall fans. Bounty Killer "gave me a hard time -- for nuttin' . . . for nuttin' whatsoever," says Beenie Man. "For all the years this man be cussing me, calling me all different type of names, callin' me a gay, everyt'ing in the world that he think would hurt me. And then -- boom! Here you come with a naked man in your video. That's crazy, yunno. The hard-core bad boy Bounty Killer with a naked man in his video. That's funny."

Americans unfamiliar with the island's institutionalized and often virulent homophobia may be puzzled by this kind of back-and-forth, but in Jamaica, it makes headlines.

"I think Jamaica is not a world dat open to the rest of the world, it's enclosed. It's not like me that go out in the world and know that, okay, gay people are born to be gay. . . . This is their ways; you cannot change it. There's nothing they can do to help themselves, yunno. Just like a man love woman, you got man love man," he says.

"But Jamaica is a spiritual country, like I explain it to you how my grandfather explain it to me. My grandfather said, 'If a man make love to a man, the life that we know cease to exist because man cannot have kids. And if a woman make love to a woman, a woman cannot get a woman pregnant, so life as we know cease to exist. There'd be no life."

Perhaps this emphasis on the creation of life is an outgrowth of the extreme poverty endured by so many Jamaicans. "So many people are dying, too," says Beenie. "I think that's a big part of it."

Slightly more than a month after the car accident, Paul Tyrell, Beenie Man's longtime road manager and executive director of his Shocking Vibes production company, was murdered in a drive-by shooting. According to newspaper accounts, Beenie Man was so deeply shaken by the news that he was readmitted to the hospital.

Asked about it now, Beenie Man has little to say. "Nuttin' I can tell you about it, yunno, more than people try to bring you down, so they try to kill people around you. That's how Jamaica stay at times," he says quietly.

Is he worried about his own safety?

"In Jamaica, it's not good to fear, to have fear. When you think about fear, things happen to you."

Calm Amid the Storm

Beenie Man may embroil himself in controversies big and small, but he's also earned a measure of respectability. In Kingston, he was painted alongside Bob Marley on a sidewalk mural. He has received a doctorate from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, hence the title of his 1999 album, "The Doctor." "I had a whole little cap and gown, everything," he says. "It was great. Then we had a show after."

In Craig Town, he has built schools and organized football competitions. "We fix up the community," he says. "We have everything to keep the community going."

Last December, just a few weeks before Beenie Man's accident, the annual Sting concert collapsed into violence. As the audience hurled bottles at the performers, Vibz Kartel, an up-and-coming artist, physically assaulted dancehall veteran Ninjaman onstage. According to published reports, more than 20 people were injured in the melee that ensued both on and off stage.

Amid the chaos, Beenie Man took the stage and calmed the crowd.

"I just walk on the stage and stop everyt'ing. But I know I can do that because Jamaica love me. Yeah, it's like I'm getting the same love that they used to give Dennis Brown or Bob Marley in Jamaica," says Beenie Man. "So when the people love you, you have to show your powers."

By stepping on the stage that night, Beenie Man may have been taking his life in his hands. But he was willing to take that risk.

"This is dancehall music," he says. "You have to save the music. It's not save the show, it's save the music."
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