Saturday, October 30, 2004

Sign Of The Times

To paraphrase Prince, I was feverish when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray...

"These Are Trying Times", Donny Hathaway sang 30 years ago as Vietnam and Nixonian malaise reigned. Less highbrow perhaps, Pete Rock & CL Smooth talked about "The Anger In The Nation" a decade ago in a post-Rodney King LA riots era. These are not the most obvious examples but they are audible fragments of a meme that has been floating around my head.

I've been growing increasingly uneasy of late and, like many, have been grasping for a vocabulary with which to express what I feel. I find myself falling back to popular culture to better articulate this and hence I've been thinking a lot about the artistic response to one's times.

Life in America in the post September 11 era is in many ways a matter of angst in the nation. It is no coincidence that one of the things I'm reading is a piece in Harper's titled "Our Present Disillusionment" or that recent series in the Detroit Free Press, Anger in America. And it's not just that this past few months have been a Rovian-inspired season of electoral frenzy. It's a more pervasive sensibility that is quite unsettling to an outsider and even to someone as assimilated as I am to this culture.

Perusing today's headlines I notice Eminem giving Bush the finger and Springsteen on the stump for Kerry. And yes, I've read The Culture of Fear, watched Bowling for Columbine and the Fog of War, listened to the pundits, read the historians, politicians, economists and the social theorists. I read widely, but I still don't have the words to describe what I feel.

I suppose I'm asking for a poet laureate, for a crown prince to mine the zeitgeist, and sing Strange Fruit, someone who'll paint the Guernica of our times. Reading a piece on Bob Dylan, who fits that bill for a certain generation this quote stood out to me:

One mark of a genius is that "he's attuned with what's going on, what needs to be named or said."
My own affinity is to urban griots of one sort or another (I don't like Dylan much to be frank) and I'm not searching for a genius; I do want someone to name these things for me however.

Listening to the news these days is very trying, and made worse if you are a news junkie like me, monitoring dozens of news sources regularly. The litany of tragedy is, as ever, epic, awful and mostly man-made: Darfur, Haiti, Beslan, Madrid, Bali, Istanbul, Casablanca, last week Taba and the list goes on.

And then there's Iraq, that unmitigated disaster. The continued almost-daily suicide bombings, so-called precision munitions bombing residential areas, beheadings and now summary executions. And the black hole of pestilence and perversity that Abu Ghraib stands for just underscores everything. Ineffable sadness all around.

But there's also the perennial mindless savagery of adolescent rage take for example the teenager shooting up his school in Argentina killing his classmates.

Economic anxiety doesn't help, a recession and job insecurity all contribute to my unease but I discount those somewhat. What does makes thing worse is that cognitive dissonance is so prevalent. It's not the flag-waving that bothers me, it's what appears to be a uniquely blinkered outlook in the discourse. No one wants to admit that they were wrong, or, as the case may be, duped, despite the best evidence to the contrary.

Where once angst was an occasional issue, the words of the day are more forceful and pervasive: unease, disquiet and foreboding. My own outlook hasn't reached for those heavy hitters (fear, trouble or terror). However everywhere I look, many are behaving accordingly. Aaron MacGruder's Boondocks comic strip has been skewering this trend in recent weeks: people stocking up on duct tape, hiding from the world and checking Tom Ridge's colour-coded Homeland Security threat alert system. It might as well be Code Red when people start censoring themselves and others or spying on their neighbours.

As an African immigrant, I tend to keep a low profile (borne of years of seeing the radioactive effect of carrying a Ghanaian passport which loudly advertises economic desperation). I can't imagine however looking vaguely middle-eastern or carrying a Saudi or Pakistani passport in America these days (or in the Russian context, being a Chechen woman). Chris Rock has a good bit about how it feels good to be black after September 11 because now there are others who were receiving worse treatment. It's twisted social commentary but it hits a truth that you can even be part of the establishment these days and worry (somewhat) less about things like 'driving while black'.

We all like to watch train wrecks but this society actively celebrates ambulance chasers (viz. the rise of reality TV). The problem is that train wrecks these days don't only come in the form of O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. These days it's a matter of beheadings, hostage taking and torture (of the Rumsfeld-Cambone nudge-nudge wink-wink variety or even of the official policy kind). And all of this captured on tape as Susan Sontag has noted (Regarding the Pain of Others).

I wasn't alive during the height of the Cold War paranoia in the 50s and 60s but I feel a similar paranoia reigning today. There's a distinct chill in the air even in soi-disant "liberal" Massachusetts. A puritanical streak and self-righteous hurt will of course lead to witch hunts and here the overbearing John Ashcroft looms large on the discourse. My impressions of the hysteria of McCarthyism are informed the arts, plays like Arthur Miller's Crucible or films like The Front. In this sense the remake of The Manchurian Candidate is timely reminder of paranoia as is a movie like Dogville on Puritanism, even if so didactic and stylized.

I suppose all this is a pointer to a foundational shock to the American psyche. America is a huge country dominant in so many ways but one gets the sense of a fragile cultural fabric, easily traumatized by a short history. And yet the solipsism borne of wounded pride is a little jarring. It's an insular and personalized defiance that one can't counter with european-like sophistication that terrorism is nothing new. Sighing wearily that that I've lived through the depredations of the IRA is of no consolation in fact it's positively enervating. Nor are anecdotes about being stuck weekly on crowded trains in the London Underground for some security alert or the other. Security is a process and a nuisance but everyone should just got on with it. Instead there's an exceptionalism in the trauma: no one has ever been hurt more than us. In much the same way, I've seen people bristle about how nothing could compare to the Holocaust, not genocidal Cambodia, not low-budget but highly efficient bloodbaths in Rwanda.

Via Tom Engelhardt and Jonathan Schell, I note James Carroll's piece which gets to the language that we use. George Lakoff would likely have much to say about framing in the same vein.
After decades [following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] of implicitly waiting for the mushroom cloud to appear over the nation, we saw the clouds of ash rising from the World Trade Center as a version of that horror. As I heard the scholar John Dower observe, the use of the term 'Ground Zero' in New York is an unconscious appropriation of the authentic Ground Zeros in Japan. That is why 9/11 traumatized us out of all proportion to the scale of destruction, which, while tragic, was hardly world-historic.


As the proverb goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled. Africa has long paid a price for being a battleground. Just ask Angolans what Jesse Helms' friend, that freedom-fighter, Jonas Savimbi has wrought. Latin Americans too know all about power imbalances. And to add to economic and ideological warfare, we are now prey to the theological nihilism of Al Qaeda. What had Kenya or even proto-socialist Tanzania ever done to deserve being waylaid by the 1998 US embassy bombings?

When I read a story titled Al-Qaeda tea brew hits Guinea, I sincerely hope that the locals are just doing good agitprop marketing and nothing more. You really don't want the US Army in your backyard as you're trying to get on with that messy business of rising from poverty. Nor do you want to be the combat ground, the soft target or the collateral roadkill. And that explains the alarm that I felt on my Christmas 2001 trip home when I saw that little girl running around Osu wearing the yellow Osama Bin Laden shirt. God help us. Thankfully I haven't seen more of that since but it's worth worrying about any residual currents. Development is hard enough that we know we can't afford Nigerian Taleban.

Africans are no strangers to social dislocation. In many ways upheaval is our close companion. The contours of my life and of many my age have been shaped by 3 coups d'états so it stands to reason that these I would reach to them to try to grapple with defining my unease. A slight detour then into personal memory...

A signal part of Rawlings' first coup in Ghana in 1979 was when the 8 generals and other senior officers were summarily tried in a kangaroo court, tied to the stake and executed by a firing squad of blood-thirsty junior officers. Memory being what it is, I can't recall if I watched the grainy broadcast or saw the photos of these poor men. What I do remember vividly was the tenor of the talk in the playgrounds in the ensuing weeks, the urban legend being about the colonel who refused to die and kept getting shot. Similarly, after the December 31st 1981 coup, at school children talked about some of the people who were being called up on radio to report to the army camp, Burma Camp, "with immediate effect" some of whom we knew would never make it back and many who returned broken.

And yet it was not the armed soldiers and tanks on the streets or the oppressive curfew that caused the dread and disquiet, it was rather the tone of the talk, something that hit very close to home. The French word, ricanement (roughly translated as snigger), comes the closest to encapsulating the mocking tone I heard in those voices: the sound of unfocused vengeance, score-settling, of larger violent forces wrecking havoc on lives.

In Ghana there's been a National Reconciliation Committee, which has just completed its look at the more egregious episodes we've faced in the hope of finding catharsis. My own submission to such a forum would not be about the upheaval in one's life, which after all was all too common, but rather a pointer to this great queasiness that returns in my thoughts. Of the worrying about friends and family and even those perfect strangers who would get caught up in the turmoil. Of the sheer waste, injustice and arbitrariness of it all.

In 1989 or maybe 1990, I recall heading to an acquaintance's house (he was Liberian, there were a number of Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians there) only to discover them watching the notorious video of the last hours of Samuel Doe, when Prince Johnson's militia did its worst. I walked out, why watch this? True Master Sergeant Doe was an ogre in the mould of Idi Amin, savage and ruthless (and a useful pawn during the Cold War) who similarly tortured his opponents. But what did all this bode? What did the circulation of these bootleg videos, passing from hand to hand from Liberia to London, bode? Think of the bazaars in Baghdad today?

And so it came to pass. Liberia and Sierra Leone have endured the most wrenching 15 years with more cruelty and viciousness than ever. In the grand annals of wickedness, people like Charles Taylor would have a lot to pay for (and of course Ghaddafi, who has sponsored almost every misadventure in Africa and elsewhere). Instead it's a comfortable exile...

I offer these anecdotes, and grasp onto the inchoate emotions they raised because they are close counterparts to my rising unease, accelerated as it is by this notion that such things are filmed, that depravity is such a commonplace that it can be entertainment or even motivational. And so when I think of a world of Abu Ghraib, I reach for Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick's take on "A Clockwork Orange".

On War

I long for the War on Poverty but am confronted only with the War on Drugs and that new friend, the War on Terror. The creeping militarization of the US troubles me greatly. I personally prefer the police and I write this with wary trepidation of the living memory of the 41 bullets that lay Amadou Diallo down.

Armies everywhere are awful - just ask anyone living near about a army camp. Power and perversity are close cousins and combining youth, testosterone and guns is a dangerous thing. So the military is at its honourable best, a necessary evil, but is more often a coercive force (and in the case of modern Africa or Latin America, an entirely disastrous institution). And so the spread of this military and security industry is alarming. When I attend conferences, I see that a large proportion of the jobs in my field are targeting defense.

Artists from Homer to Hemingway via Wilfred Owen have long found prime material in considering war. I thought David O. Russell's Three Kings was a great take on the first Gulf War and highly relevant to this present Iraq excursion. It is in the same vein of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Coppola's Apocalype Now which considered earlier misadventures.

I've been reading the first part of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, Men in Arms which is suitably trenchant in skewering English society in the Second World War shining a light on the conduct of war. It's a great novelistic examination of that blight on the last century. But it is a passage from his earlier savage satire, Vile Bodies (recently turned into a very good Stephen Fry film, Bright Young Things) that I turn to in thinking about these times of war. This was written in 1930 displaying a prescience about the coming war with Hitler and it could well stand in for much of the discourse of the past three years.
"And anyway, what do you mean by 'historical'?"
"Well, it's like this war that's coming... "
"What war?" said the Prime Minister sharply. "No one has said anything to me about a war. I really think I should have been told. I'll be damned," he said defiantly, "if they shall have a war without consulting me. What's a Cabinet for, if there's not more mutual confidence than that. What do they want a war for, anyway?"
"That's the whole point. No one talks about it, and no-one wants it. No one talks about it because no-one wants it. They're all afraid to breathe a word about it"
"Well, hang it all, if no one wants it, who's going to make them have it?"
"Wars don't start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions."
"Well, you seem to know all about it," said Mr. Outrage, "and I think should have been told sooner."

On September 11th

The heavy hitters of American letters, Updike, Delillo, Mailer and now I suppose Phillip Roth, have all tried to grapple with September 11th but I'm left cold by their efforts. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is more vigourous but felt like a hammer where a scalpel was needed.

This has meant that so far Spike Lee's 25th Hour has been the best artistic response to that tragedy. The city of New York is itself a character in the film and, like all the other characters, is uneasy and walking wounded. This is the tenor of our time; the tragedy is mostly only obliquely referenced but its undercurrent is plainly evident. When Spike Lee has strong material (as when taking over from Scorsese and bringing Richard Price's tome of urban dysfunction Clockers to life) he is almost untouchable... of course then he follows up with She Hate Me...

On Violence

The Columbine massacre has been well covered by artists in documentaries like Bowling For Columbine, novels like Vernon God Little or even Gus Van Sant's Elephant. But I turn to City of God as perhaps the best recent commentary on violence and its effects - a panoramic film about young life in the favelas in Rio. Apart from being utterly compelling, extremely well-edited and controlled, it was a personal, yet Dickensian look at urban blight and the unruly life on the margins; news from a personal war, as it were.

On the war on drugs I turn to my favorite show The Wire a novelistic approach to the topic that deconstructs the city of Baltimore and all the various players, to that Channel 4 mini-series Traffik (along with its American remake Soderbergh's Traffic) and think of the mournful weight in Benicio Del Toro' and Don Cheadle's eyes. And I'd add the recent Maria Full of Grace humanizing the mules in the drug trade.

The Urban Griot Soundrack

The seventies saw a great flowering of the social commentary from the arts. In music this was spurred on by the rise of the album. Many took full advantage of the expanded freedom of that form and started a conversation full of call-and-response.

Marvin Gaye's entire What's Going On album is thus a focused meditation on his times and perhaps the best examination of that era, certainly my fondest. The story of his soldier brother returning from Vietnam and discovering mayhem in the social fabric: those Inner City Blues were enough to make you wanna holler Mercy, Mercy Me.

The Temptations jumped in and bluntly asked War, What is it Good For? Donny Hathaway too kept everyone honest and wondered about The Ghetto and the Voices Inside while hoping that Someday We'll All Be Free. Similarly Bobby Womack considered the broken windows Across 110th Street. The O'Jays wondered what people would do For The Love Of Money.

Curtis Mayfield too was a major part of the debate. A serious musician, his earlier work with The Impressions was the soundtrack to a forceful civil rights movement: People Get Ready was essential in this respect (and served to inspire the Bob Marleys of this world). As he grew as an artist, he couldn't fail to comment on the ills of his time. In SuperFly, he wanted his music to stand as a counterpoint to what was displaying on the blaxploitation screen. I'm Your Pusher is a commentary on a problem not a glorification of the dealer. Or consider songs from the essential Curtis (Live) album like We're a Winner where everyone is 'moving on up' and the admonitions to "keep on pushing", the ironic (Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Gonna Go, Stone Junkie (about escaping from reality through drugs) or even the sublime We the People(who are darker than blue)
We People Who Are Darker Than Blue
Are We Gonna Stand Around This Town And Let What Others Say Come True
We're Just Good For Nothing, They All Figure
A Boyish Grown Up Shiftless Jigger
Now We Can't Hardly Stand For That
Or Is That Really Where It's At?
James Brown too knew that it was Hell, and that King Heroin reigned. Truth be told though, Soul Brother Number One was more interested in getting on the good foot than on being a generation's conscience. He had to be prodded into making "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and was happy to campaign for Nixon and even to sing at Nixon's inauguration. This juxtaposition with the likes of Spiro Agnew still confounds me when I think about him.

Gil Scott-Heron who has maintained his stance as the angry young man to this day claimed The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and asked with mournful indignation Who'll Pay Reparations On My Soul? Later on he considered the effects of drugs in tracks like Angel Dust and more generally his society, see Winter in America.

But it isn't all bleak. Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life is all exuberance. The double album, set a decade after the civil rights gains, is an affirmative celebration of all the facets of his times. Of course, he didn't realize that it was an interregnum, that the reality would be more like the one he painted in Living For the City five year's earlier in Innervisions.

Similarly Chic talking about the Good Times in a contemporaneous disco era were only fooling themselves. Carter's malaise was well-founded since for African-Americans the coming years were of the Reagan Retrenchment and the Crack epidemic. A comedian like Dave Chappelle nevertheless proudly mines that legacy today.

And what of the more recent music? Responding to September 11th, I like Meshell NdegeOcello's Forgiveness and Love more for the feeling in music than any real lyrical insight. The DJ Shadow/Zack De La Rocha collaboration March of Death was similarly topical, and had a grinding and dirty industrial backbeat that would have made the Bomb Squad proud. Antibalas also pose the question: Who is this America Dem Speak Of Today? from the Afrobeat context.

One strain in hip-hop, outside the braggadocio, lyrical gymnastics and beat mining is that pose of representing the streets, of realism, of being the social barometer for what is going down. That's why Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets are often mentioned as important precursors to say Grandmaster Flash's The Message or Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back. Rappers like KRS-One, Ice Cube, Rakim and N.W.A. among others would claim to be the CNN of the ghetto. And so there a multitude of hip hop artists jostling over this throne but I discount most of them - deep down, most just really want to party and that's fair enough. We can use some groove in these days.

I'll skip the brouhaha over Eminem's latest screed and just mention two recent songs both titled Why? that are among the hip-hop generation contribution to this debate. The first by Jadakiss and Anthony Hamiltonwas percolating in the charts all summer. Jadakiss is not my kind of thing as a rapper (and it struck me as simplistic Bush-bashing as inane as say Puff Daddy's Vote or Die stance) but the song (especially the remix with Common, a more 'conscious' artist) proved to be very popular, put people on the dancefloor and did, in fact, foster some contemplation. The second Why is more thoughtful and articulate given the source; it closed out The Root's Tipping Point album. They acknowledged it in their liner notes as a gesture towards creating their own What's Going On to serve as a poignant commentary on this Dubya era and it works well in that respect.

And so I'll end this by commenting on the song that for me best exemplifies the artist responding to his times and managing to capturing it all, Prince's Sign 'O' The Times. The lyrics depict headlines from a week or even a precise day in the late 80s but they still they resonate today in their depiction of social dislocation. The musical arrangement of song itself is very spare: Lynn drum, bass, quiet fills of rhythm guitar. Buried in the mix is an emotional guitar solo that gets me every time I listen to it. A few lyrics:
In France A Skinny Man Died
Of A Big Disease With A Little Name
By Chance His Girlfriend Came Across A Needle
And Soon She Did The Same
At Home There Are Seventeen-Year-Old Boys
And Their Idea Of Fun
Is Being In A Gang Called The Disciples,
High On Crack, And Totin' A Machine Gun.
Time, Time

Hurricane Annie Ripped The Ceiling Off A Church
And Killed Everyone Inside
U Turn On The Telly
And Every Other Story Is Tellin' U Somebody Died
Sister Killed Her Baby
Cuz She Could Afford 2 Feed It And
We're Sending People 2 The Moon
In September My Cousin Tried Reefer 4 The Very First Time
Now He's Doing Horse, It's June.
Times, Times.

It's Silly, No?
When A Rocket Ship Explodes
And Everybody Still Wants 2 Fly
Some Say A Man Ain't Happy
Unless A Man Truly Dies
Oh Why?
Time, Time.
This line about "Some Say A Man Ain't Happy Unless a Man Truly Dies. Oh Why?" has been my personal soundtrack for the past few months. Still, I like the way he ends the song: it isn't all doom and gloom, life carries on.
Sign O' The Times,
Mess With Your Mind,
Hurry Before It's 2 Late
Let's Fall In Love,
Get Married, Have A Baby
We'll Call Him Nate (If It's A Boy)
So I try to just get on with it, to get back to work.
It's just a song, it's just a book, it's just another movie.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

On GMail and DHTML architecture again

So Jon Udell has been pondering GMail and its architecture on his blog. He's also trying to figure out when to augment DHTML apps with even richer client technology. Below follows what I thought would be a short email that I repeat here for blogospheric conversation's sake.

GMail's architecture is actually very generic for a DHTML app. Everyone with a clue should be trying to leverage the browser and that, in essence, is all they are doing.

I helped implement an analogous architecture in Lotus K-station back in 1999. The major difference now is that everyone is using the "v.5" versions of the browsers; no one cares any longer about Netscape 4.7x.

For me the tipping point for rich DOM/JavaScript applications came when we saw mainstream applications like Hotmail and Yahoo Mail start using DHTML menus. My Yahoo only switched to DHTML menus when it was relaunched a few weeks ago and that's my litmus test for conservatism. (Ironically GMail switched back from DHTML menus to standard HTML selects for its "More actions" and apply label bar a month or so ago - although that might just be from usability testing). A similar event happened in the past year with the way users can rate items in wishlists and also in Netflix without seemingly causing page reloads - you know those five stars.

I mention the spread of all these little DHTML flourishes because I remember back in 2000 spending 3 months and well over 10 heated meetings trying to convince IBM architects to allow the use of simple things like DHTML menus and losing the battle. Of course given that kind of resistance, it was unlikely that features like drag-and-drop which one got from the UI engine in K-station would see the light in WebSphere Portal.

I was arguing that judicious leverage of DHTML could improve the user experience and that it could done while addressing accessibility concerns. Ostensibly the objections were not about usability or consistency but rather about not wanting to write multiple UIs and lack of expertise in DHTML programming. I realized then that the argument was not really about "to-DHTML-or-not" but more about comfort with a repartitioning of one's architecture.

It is riskier to do more on the rich browser client because it has been a more brittle platform over this past decade. Companies that do middleware and server-side tooling take a while to move from their core competency. Architects that thrive in that environment are essentially conservative and for good reason... Four years later, I now hear mutterings about drag-and-drop and richer clients in our corridors...

This only underscores the point that Jakob Nielsen's predictions about browser adoption cycles have turned out to be pretty accurate. Even though web application developers have been quietly spreading unobtrusive javascript usage in the interim, it is only now that there's a critical mass of clients that can leverage them; when Amazon and Yahoo move, something must be happening.

The developer tools and resources have gotten (slightly) better and there's more experience with the DOM. Increased adoption of broadband also helps reduce latency for the average client so you don't have to fight the inevitable arguments about performance and can couch your advocacy in terms of user interaction. In any case if and when you do have the performance discussion you can always argue that caching as close to the client as possible is a good thing and what better cache than the browser itself. It just so happens that applications like GMail, Bloglines and Oddpost are the state of the art in terms of browser leverage.

I recently wrote about this type of architecture in my recounting of the history of the DHTML spreadsheet and presentation components that are the genetic forebears of OddPost.

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
This pattern works very well for page oriented applications like portals, email, aggregators. You can cache or preload your javascript objects and just manipulate the CSS display or visibility attributes for your UI Bindings.

Incremental rendering and multithreaded loading is the name of the game here. Your application is essentially architected as a hypermedia browser just like the browser and leverages the browser's built in core features, our old favorites: incremental rendering and multithreaded downloading.

The decision about using XML as the data transfer format instead of Javascript objects is a toss-up, trading off client reach and memory. XML support in Safari and Opera is not as baked as MSIE or Mozilla so having JavaScript as your interchange format with your UI engine will buy you increased reach and smaller footprint.

Ultimately though XML will be your backend data format so the temptation will increasingly be to use the various XML-on-the-wire APIs (XMLHTTPRequest). Maybe another 4 years is needed for this pattern to see more widespread usage, JavaScript on the wire suffices for now.

Perhaps K-station was too bleeding edge trying to go for XML over HTTP, DHTML and extreme leverage of the browser client 5 years ago but that experience was a great testbed for me and I learned lots of lessons about building rich REST-ful applications, the importance of URIs etc.

Again the major missing feature for this rich web application platform is offline usage and synchronization without introducing new security holes in the browser. But then that's why Bosworth is at Google as the rumour goes, right? I suspect he's got other things in mind though...

I would note that the Mozilla folks know that the offline capabilities in their platform are a bust so I'd expect some eyes on this. Look also at applications like FormsPlayer for innovation in this space or anyone doing forms in general. XForms is my current thing and offline forms are a great feature that users can understand and demos very well; it's also something that the Notes platform does very well. Our old friend, Groove, also does that kind of synchronization well but I'd want that for the web, natively in the browser.

I think that increased leverage of the browser and the DOM is a good thing. It's also a clear trend and for many applications, the browser is good enough. Good enough for Google, good enough for Yahoo, good enough for me.

One note about memory consumption and pushing things onto the client. There's an end-to-end argument for this notion of pushing intelligence to the endpoints but there is a cost and in this case it's memory consumption. It's mininal but it exists in this case. One lesson I learned was that it's good to use the kind of machines that the average client would be using and consequently I always hoard older machines. I've noticed that with lots of tabbed browsing and increased use of GMail and Bloglines, my four year old Windows ME box (Athlon 900 Mhz 512MB RAM) thrashes memory more often and I've seen more sporadic crashes/freezes with Mozilla. I know this is actually a lagging indicator and that most users are now on Windows 2000 and possibly XP, but it is a pointer to the memory consumption overhead of DHTML apps. All my other machines are fine and I should note that these applications run just as fine on ME as on other platforms in terms of interactivity and all, it is just prolonged use and a piece-of-junk memory and resource subsytem in that excuse for an operating system... My next representative machine is a Win2k box and on that evidence everything is in order even with these highly leveraged applications.

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Monday, October 25, 2004

Cooking with Rokia Traoré

A night with Rokia Traoré at the Somerville Theatre, October 15, 2004

For many, the peak of Miles Davis's first great quintet were the four albums they recorded during a marathon studio session one magical day in October 1956. Relaxin', Workin', Cookin' and Steamin' were the album titles and collectively, they displayed the best of the jazz form of almost any era.

This was a group that had made a reputation touring together with a varied repertoire. The rhythm section of Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers was so well-oiled that it was called "The Rhythm Section", bold and capitalized. The quintet set the gold standard for musical empathy and high caliber fireworks something augmented in these recordings especially when a young John Coltrane would egg on bandleader Miles and trade solos.

The albums were recorded as if they were in a nightclub, Miles would call out a tune and off they would go laying out the definitive treatment of standards like Surrey With Fringe On Top or It Never Entered My Mind along with originals like Four and Half Nelson. These albums were probably the most conventional that Miles would make; he was never one to look back.

I mention all this because in many ways, Rokia Traoré's performance with her eight piece band last Friday reminded me of those landmark albums, in conception, in attitude and especially in the flawless execution.



She walks out onto the stage quietly, picks up a guitar and begins playing. There are no diva theatrics - think of Beyonce being carried out Cleopatra-like by a guard of six hardbodies. This is a musician first and foremost; an unassuming singer/songwriter who knows that the music will speak for itself. She's lost the braids from a few years ago and her head is shaven, she's rocking the Angelique Kidjo aesthetic.

A back-up singer and a kora player accompany her and they begin with a touch of reflection, a couple of soft lilting ballads She's trying out the material from the new album, Bowmboï. It's a gentle introduction for the audience, fodder for a quiet evening on the porch.

Malian music is very well marketed in the West, moreso than say soukous, highlife or other forms of African music. The reason being that it is typically less frenetic than those forms and also because in many ways, it fits with a certain notion of "World Music": folky, laidback, and vaguely "authentic". The idea is that it's rural, bluesy, folk music: think Ali Farka Toure, think the "Roots of The Blues" etc. Never mind that the picture on the ground is more complicated or that the influences are varied and cross cultural boundaries. Never mind all that. This is the terrain of the African artist. Their music belies the frame in which they are portrayed.

The first time I saw her, four years ago, it was across the street, at Johnny D's, a small, homely joint that seats maybe a hundred. Back then, she was promoting her second album, Wanita, a dreamy affair firmly in traditional mould. These days though, she can sell out the Somerville Theatre which seat about 1,000 which give you some idea of the attention that has been paid to building up an audience. Nonesuch is the new record label and you know that they are no fools.


Working with the Miles Davis Quintetrokia traore

The rest of the band join them and the evening's groove begins. Rokia is a diplomat's daughter and has lived in the Middle East and the West. She's listened closely to all those other rhythms but finds comfort in her roots, thus we have the balafon (xylophone), the kora, the two n'gonis (lutes)and the calabash and talking drums. Clearly the decision to use traditional malian instruments is a conscious one.

Her voice is not as full as Oumou Sangare - the éminence grise of Malian vocalists; it's lighter and more ethereal. The backup singer overlays and harmonizes very well. They are sisters in harmony.

She's got a young band, a set of young Malian musicians who are enjoying every minute of their time together and are committed to the journey she's taking them on. As a bandleader, she is not the imperious commander type although she has a clear conception of what she wants to achieve. She is more the team player, allowing everyone to shine and produce a zone offense, if there's such a thing.

One surprise though is the new guitarist/bassist Christophe "Disco" Minck, a tall long-haired Belgian so-and-so who lays down the fierce and metronomic break beats and wah-wah effects while jerking like a funky chicken. It adds some flavour to the gumbo they are cooking up on stage. This is akin to the addition of Money Mark's Fender-Rhodes keyboards during Femi Kuti's tour a few years ago promoting the Fight To Win album. There's something about the cross-cultural exchange by having another set of ears in the mix. She's been listening to all sorts of music and it informs her writing on the songs on the new album. It's hypnotic and mellow yet, rendered live, it's propulsive stuff.


Cooking with the Miles Davis Quintet

During the Wanita tour, she very generously shared her stage with a group of young Malian drummers and rappers. The whole world listens to hip-hop and it was interesting to see the exuberant youth reinterpret the old tunes to a griot backbeat. She welcomed their melodic ideas and rhythmic wordplay then but this sensibility is only occasionally hinted at in her own music. She manages to be sound contemporary while keeping a traditionalist slant to things.

Back home, her biggest competition among the young lions is probably Habib Koite who is a similarly gifted writer. The blind duo, Amadou & Miriam are the folk heroes. Of course the gold standard are artists like Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and all those great kora players (Toumani Diabate among them).

The new album recorded last year has been getting some buzz in Africa and Europe. Bowmboï won the BBC Album of the Year award and you begin to get an idea of what the judges for that competition were thinking as imperceptibly the band begins cooking. Polyrhythmic innovation quickly ensues, fired on by wah-wah guitar and alternatively some thumping electric baselines.

On the album she enlists the Kronos Quartet on a couple of songs - the effect is to add a classical tinge to the malian and occasional middle-eastern soundscape. Live though, the band gives vent to the interplay between the n'goni and the calabash, her own guitar quietly filling in the space.

For me it's the soul clap factor, once you've got me clapping, your work is done: I'll be your evangelist. She's got me clapping for sure.

As if to prove my point, she starts dancing with her backup singer, with flowing and languid movements. The men get very interested at this, if they weren't already: the two are lithe and sexy. The women in the crowd stay interested because their dancing is not as overtly sexual as for example those female dancers in Femi Kuti or Koffi Olomide's bands; it's tastefully done and no competition. They proceed to reel off five or six joints that are simply perfect, insistently intelligent, long groovy pieces that they explore to the fullest. We are all elated by the end of things.



As she comes out for the encore, she enjoins the crowd in her bookish, impeccably correct and french-accented english, to feel free to stand and join her in moving to her music. "For me, singing onstage was a dream that has come true." Like a good diplomat, she knows how to charm her audience. The Girlfriend and I of course had been nudging each other throughout noting that African audiences would never have sat down through the type of performance that we have been treated to so far. Well this is Massachusetts so we take what we get.

The crescendo builds up in the three encore songs, and this is what is extraordinary about this: the music while clearly akin to Ali Farka Toure blues is nevertheless very danceable. More to the point the groove is trance-like and plainly funky. How do you manage to make funk out of kora and xylophone, pray tell? Now others in the crowd don't need any prodding to join in the soul-claps and the call-and-response that clearly delight both musicians and audience.

I think the space created by the two interlocking n'gonis is a vital part of the mix. Also we are treated to shifting tempos and some sublime changes just like in soukous or old highlife (see King Bruce or E.T. Mensah). Think of it as 5 or 6 in-situ remixes of the songs, radical reinterpretations of a basic sketch. So the dancing gets wilder, the atmosphere gets sweaty and we are all making a beautiful sound. At the concert closes the entire band is showcased and they do justice to it all. We're leave hyped by what we've heard. Come back Rokia... Steaming is the least of it.

Now that I've placed Rokia Traoré in august company for this review asserting that she's channeling the spirit of the Miles Davis Quintet, I should close by commenting on the context in which to place the evolution of her nouveau-funk Malian brew. For Miles Davis, the cooking sessions confirmed his place among the jazz greats and cemented his reputation as a bandleader par excellence. Bop traditionalists still look back on fondly on them as a landmarks. Albums like Kind of Blue and Somethin' Else would soon follow these classic and Miles' experiments would multiply in the ensuing years. Rokia Traoré's new album and especially the live performances in this tour are similar, confirmation of a great talent and a wonderful bandleader, I can't wait for the next album or to see what direction she goes in. You want to be along for the ride.

The critical response to her tour has been suitably estatic (see these various reviews for example). But don't take it from the Times or The Post, down here in the streets of Cambridge, the toli is that Rokia Traoré has arrived. Keep your eye on her.

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Friday, October 08, 2004

On Musical Obsession

If you live with a music lover you'll know that there's something not quite right with them. They're damaged goods.

By music lover I mean 'real' music lovers, the kind that Nick Hornby loving depicted in High Fidelity. The main reason that novel is so loved is its systematic mapping of the emotionally stunted psyche of the 'real' music lover. The novel appears sharp and knowing because, in essence, it's a self portrait; the terrain of musical obsession is Hornby's daily minefield. We all know these music lovers and have to deal with their many foibles. (The book inspired the less funny John Cusack film, I've raised my objections to the film previously).

The 'real' music lover (typically male as empirical evidence shows) is someone who is plumbing the depths of musical obsession, who'll engage you in all sorts of musical obscura, evangelizing some middling (from your point of view) or unfailingly under-promoted (from their point of view) artist; he'll be constantly drawing up Top 10 lists on any topic (desert island disks, best B-side, best break up music, best make up music etc), reorganizing their music collection by genre, alphabetically, by mood, by theme, or by date bought, by girlfriend or by some contrived criteria.

They'll kick you out of their record store because you're looking for Stevie Wonder's I Just Called To Say I Love You, while at the same time furiously insist that MC Hammer's Turn This Mutha Out is the shiznit ("You know Early Hammer was quite revolutionary really"). Their bigotry or unerring snobbishness cannot be questioned.

Of course, in this our iPod and file sharing age, their old standby, the mixtape, is dead and rather it's the playlist that matters. Even if it is easy enough for anyone to download 26 versions of Besame Mucho, on the whole though, most of us are content with shuffle serendipity. Still though, the real music lover has embraced these trends and will put the same craft into turning out playlists or into amassing "The Complete Story of Roxanne", those 103 responses to UTFO's 1985 novelty hit Roxanne, Roxanne.

And so, in addition to my other peculiarities, I plead guilty to musical obsession, to Top-10-listopia, to hearing lyrics everywhere. Others can attest to some of my obvious weaknesses. On any given day, I could be going on about Omar, the Crown Prince of soul music in this our millennial age, or declaiming the virtues of the Johnny Kemp's Secrets of Flying album (unfortunately overshadowed by the swingbeat single Just Got Paid - there's a lot more in there, he's a complete artist) or insisting that the peak of Jam & Lewis's Minneapolis Sound was Alexander O'Neal's Hearsay and Cherelle's Affair album as opposed to their production efforts with SOS Band or the higher selling Janet Jackson joints. And so on...

A month ago, on the Chinatown bus returning from New York after vibing with Abbey Lincoln, my cousin was increasingly irritated with the two loud ghetto women sitting behind us. You know the kind, they just hadn't been socialized: "It's inconsiderate cell phone man" with the urban twist. The loud music - it sounded like a boombox not a walkman, the gooselike laughs at how Meldrick has been dealing with his baby momma, their snide cell phone conversations with Bobo and LaFanqua about distressed, shark-skin jeans (I kid you not) and, the last straw, Cousin Ray-Ray's toe operation.

All of which was interesting to me as a cultural anthropologist of sorts, but even I have to admit that their performance was a rising crescendo for the almost 4 hour trip. When it looked as if my cousin was finally about to lose it (we were still an hour away from Boston) and turn around, fists ready and prepared to take off her heels for the imminent combat, she made the mistake of loudly saying "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" Of course that elicited this from me:

"Oh yes. What Have I Done To Deserve This? I know... Hmmm... From the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield? That would be late eighties or so... 1987 I think."
I immediately begun singing their mantra:
What Have I, What Have I,
What Have I Done To Deserve This?
What Have I, What Have I,
What Have I Done To Deserve This?
And then I started composing a Top 10 list of songs about irritation or annoyance: some favourites: True this outburst served to defuse the tension, but for the whole trip, I had been so lost in my thoughts comparing Abbey Lincoln to Amel Larrieux that I hadn't intervened earlier or nudged our neighbours into toning down their aural invasions.

And musical obsession doesn't only intrude in the mundane as above. I live with 24 hour music, it's pervasive in my mindset, at work, at play, and even in love. I assume that it's especially annoying to "The Girlfriend" when it comes to intimacy. From my point of view though, it makes evident sense to quote the occasional lyric, or four. After all, how can you be original in this day and age? Thousands of years of evolution have brought us to down to this. What haven't men and women said to each other before? What haven't Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Al Green or Luther Vandross, those lotharios of longing, whispered carelessly in the dark. Turn Off The Lights, Teddy Pendergrass insistently demanded; Truly I Adore You, Prince almost leered...

But anyway I try to make the effort at least in affairs of the heart, but it's hard to be original... It's so easy to slip in 'I Love More Than You'll Ever Know' as Donny Hathaway put it... A work in progress...

Just last night again, when the same cousin remarked in passing that her roommate would be away for the next few weeks, I was immediately compelled to start singing Wyclef Jean's Gone 'til November.

See You Must Understand
I Can't Work A Nine To Five
So I'll Be Gone Til November
Said I'll Be Gone Til November.
Yo. Tell My Girl, I'll Be Gone Til November
January, February, March, April, May
I See You Crying But Girl I Can't Stay
I'll Be Gone Til November, I'll Be Gone Til November
And Give A Kiss To My Mother.
Then I started thinking about autumn songs. First the obvious: And then onto November songs, what about Kenny Garrett's November 15 from his Songbook? And of course I remembered my favorite November song, Troop's Sweet November
Someday Soon, I Know We'll Come Together.
Even Though I Feel A Change Of Season's Due,
But Maybe Sweet November Will Tell Us A Story
That Will Bring Us Back The Love That We Both Knew.
As you can expect, the conversation degenerated from there on. First she giggled, sighed in exasperation, then just before she hung the phone, pointedly put it:
"There's something not quite right with you, Krantz".
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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

That B-Movie meme again

I've written before on how the political discourse in the West is all about nostalgia and reducible to the B-movie aesthetic of politics as theatre. I was struck by this again when watching one of the sunday morning political talk shows this weekend, hosted by Howard Kurtz on CNN, that what seemed to be important was not what the news was, but how it was discussed by the press and the talking heads.

The talk was all very meta, ironic and all about the imagery and spin. The realities of another bloody weekend in Iraq didn't even impinge on the discussion in any way, nor was there any policy analysis of the issue du jour, the presidential debate. The implication was that we are all too sophisticated to discuss substance, what mattered was how these politicians came across, how they looked, whether they picked their nose. They might as well have been baying sheep for all these commentators cared.

In much the same vein, here is Tom Engelhardt commenting on the first Bush-Kerry debate:

Presidential fiction on the morning after

"One irony did strike me as I watched a rare only half-controlled Bush performance where he did not look like his usual relaxed, folksy self: The Republicans love to denounce Hollywood, but they have proved the most fabulous purveyors of fiction and seductive imagery in our recent political history. Reagan may have been our official actor-president, but George has been much underestimated for his ability to act out both the roles of 'George Bush' and of the President. Even the debate agreement document itself, all 32 pages of it, had the detail of a Hollywood agent's contract with a big studio -- and Bush family consigliere James Baker was that agent.

Normally surrounded by blanketing 'security,' the President's campaign road events -- with their carefully reserved tickets, their choreographed chants and softball questions, their air of private theatrical performances only open to invited (or paying) guests -- have all the easy, repetitive smoothness of a Little Mermaid-like stage show at Disneyland. Far more than in any other campaign of our lifetime, the Bush campaign, until tonight, has really been a fabulously successful cartoon version of politics, buffered from any reality whatsoever. Unscripted realities have generally been kept well out of sight in blocked off protest zones and when anyone has crashed the campaign's space -- anyone, that is, wearing the wrong t-shirt or protesting in any way -- that person has almost instantly been airbrushed away. Who else has ever created such a self-enclosed political universe, so -- as everyone likes to say -- 'on message'? (And imagine that, at any given moment, there are not one but two performances taking place -- the second being a carefully coded set of signs and signals for the President's fundamentalist Christian audience.)

And what about the President himself with that wonderful walk of his -- not on display at the debate this evening -- slightly bow-legged as if he had just dismounted from a horse before striding on stage, the shoulders curved forward, the head held just in front of the body, the hands hanging at (but off) his sides as if he were indeed a mythic cowboy, a gunslinger ready to draw. (Never mind that, just out of sight, the outlaws have taken over the sheriff's office and are performing their own version of A Fistful of Dollars.)

Of course, this country's greatest and most seductive export has always been imagery (and the fictions that went with it): whether films from the Hollywood production line, TV shows that have sometimes turned much of the world into the equivalent of couch potatoes, or ad mini-dramas that travel the planet as our ambassadors, outdoing every other form of alluring fiction.

As it happens, the Bush administration's skills have been dazzling and attractive only domestically. As a Hollywood extravaganza, their campaign would be an instant failure because there would be no foreign box office. But if your goal is power at home and the world be damned, then the George machine has been a remarkably effective image producer, given the minimalist materials at hand. (Think Iraq, the price of a barrel of oil, jobs in America, or the economy generally.) Whether or not that was changed by the first debate I don't know, but it's enough to drive you bonkers. His 'ranch' in Crawford isn't actually a ranch; his 'Texas' youth happened mostly in the East; his 'military service' wasn't really military service; his 'success' in business was a sham; little that he said in his last debates against Al Gore bore any relation to the policies he's since pursued (remember his humility about 'nation-building efforts' back then); his Iraq, of course, isn't Iraq; his version of war, learned in the movie theaters of his childhood, bears no relation to war; and so on into some clean, well-lighted nightmare of the soul.

The flamboyant enemies he's preferred -- Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and now Abu Musad al-Zarqawi -- have themselves been fascinated by our image-making skills and have been into making their own images and fictions in imitation of the Hollywood that turned out Predator, Alien, and any number of catastrophe films."
These days, I'm more concerned with the campaign my mum is waging in Ghana for the Ho West constituency. Politics in Ghana, and espcially the region she is campaigning in, is still very primitive. People are so poor, living barely above subsistence that all incumbents had to do to in the past to get their votes was drop a few bags of rice and a couple of chickens, if that. Slogans or policies mattered for naught. And yet there was no tangible reward for these people for their 95% votes. No infrastructure, no roads, no running water or electrictity. And still there would be those who would vote 6 times in row if there was any difficulty with the polling - much to my uncle's disgust in the last election. At least in the US, your senator would throw some pork your way, some highway contracts or bridge, some pet scheme of some sort.

There's a heady challenge in trying to reverse 18 years of absolutism and incumbency let alone if you're trying to elevate the political discourse. So you need the printed t-shirts, the bicycles, the megaphones. You need to look good, you need to be almost a charicature, your message almost doesn't matter.

The West has shown that endpoint of politics is this sad Kerry-Bush road show. I almost wish that this weren't the future of Ghanaian politics say in 20 years time. But it is. It's that B-Movie theory again, I'm sad to say.

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