Friday, November 11, 2005

Inflation Calypso

Mr Minister Playboy
You better seek to cut all the prices down

(chorus x 2)
Prices soaring higher and higher
I guess that they are going to reach the moon

That's What I Call The Inflation Calypso

E.T. Mensah & The Tempos - Inflation Calypso
I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that the US economy isn't in good shape, what with fiscal looting, cronyism, and the evident impact of high energy prices. E.T. Mensah, singing in the colonial Gold Coast 50 years ago, simply stated his observation in two sentences and let the lilting (and mournful) music speak for itself. A few years later, independence came and the Governor-General returned to England... A calypso is not quite the blues, and the current moment is not quite a recession, still I figured I'd add some verses to his song, a few observations from my lowly vantage point.

highlife music combo

Homeowners in northeast US have been told to expect spectacular increases in heating costs this winter - a doubling or tripling in some cases. Even those rustic types who use firewood instead of oil or natural gas have found that their costs have increased 60 to 70 percent (after all, you need diesel to transport several tonnes of wood blocks). As someone who rents and who lives in an apartment complex, I've typically been shielded from these costs. I learnt a dear lesson a while back and always check that heat and hot water are included in the rent. You can hardly escape it though when conversations with everyone around you degenerate into the shrinking pocketbook song.

There's inflation in these here lands...

I don't own a car, being a public transport afficionado, but even I am not immune to the chorus of petroleum despair. During my honeymoon roadtrip, I rented an SUV which turned out to not to be a particularly fuel-efficient specimen even for the genre. This was a replacement for the sedan I had reserved which on inspection was suffused with the overpowering odour of green chilis. The previous driver must have been transporting vegetables or something; the green chili is the symbol of New Mexico but that was taking it too far. But back to the subject, each time I had to fill the car up (and this was a shockingly frequent occurrence), I was appropriately shocked and awed at the dent that this was putting on my finances. Of course it's nothing like filling up in Europe but I was feeling the literal impact of Dubya's Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina in my wallet.

I'll skip over the heart attack that is the annual almost-doubling of health insurance costs. Health care in the US is what it is and all corporations are shifting the burden of insane costs to employees - if indeed they do provide health insurance. But one wonders how sustainable this is. This is the time of year when the next year's benefits package is rolled out in corporate America and it comes with a certain dread as befits the seasonal gremlins of Halloween. When people with dependants anecdotally speak of 450% increases over 3 years, that starts to resonate.

Still the most painful indicator of inflation was the discovery that the washer and dryer in the communal laundry room in the basement of my building now require 2 extra quarters. The price of dealing with one load of laundry has gone from $2.50 to $3. A 20% increase in price at a point when wages are essentially stagnant.

Now don't get me wrong, I make a decent living and don't have children so my belt-tightening should be relatively shallow. But the fact remains that
If you run out of quarters,
You don't get to tumble-dry.
With wet laundry on the line,
You can sing the inflation calypso.
highlife musicians

Then they tell me that the price of stamps will increase next year... Blues or calypso? Bring on the chorus:
Prices soaring higher and higher
I guess that they are going to reach the moon

An inflationary soundtrack

  • E.T. Mensah & The Tempos - Inflation Calypso
    The early highlife bands such as E.T. Mensah's Tempos and King Bruce's Black Beats were all about celebrating the good times; the genre is called "high" life after all. But the griot tradition is deeply embedded in West African culture so you couldn't avoid some social commentary and canny dissent. The song is 2 and a 1/2 minutes of mournful saxophone and shifting drums. The lyrics are an economy of wit and the chorus is repeated almost tongue in cheek. Highlife music is said to come from the fusion of Caribbean and African rhythms with a jazz sensibility, thus it was always global in outlook. This is why you'll find many songs designated as calypsos. E.T. Mensah was keenly aware that if the good times ended, there would be little demand for his musical stylings hence here, he sounded the alarm.
  • Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges - Going Up
    From the Side by Side album, this is perhaps a little too festive given the topic. A small combo band swinging and 4 propulsive solos provide a musical feast. The flute that floats around the other instruments almost induces the Duke to effusiveness.
  • Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes - Wake Up Everybody
    The Philly Soul of the 70s was always socially conscious, if it wasn't Nixon or Vietnam it was that beast we called inflation. This is a wake up call for everyone sung with righteous indignation by one of the best voices in the cannon.
I would add Gwen Guthrie's Ain't Nothing Going On But the Rent but that I'll save that for a recessionary soundtrack.

File under: , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Resilience and Adaptability

I continue to mull the question of what drives technology adoption and how that should inform system design. One aspect I've covered in the past is about comprehension and ease of authoring and, on reflection, I will eventually flesh out the paper I outlined: "The importance of syntax in technology adoption".

This note though is about some of the other factors that come into play as expressed in concepts like leverage, robustness, adaptability, transparency and the like. When it comes to implementations of a given technology, things like Postel's law apply and in the marketplace, economists also have a lot to say on the matter.

The following passages seem separated at birth although they refer to different technologies. First, David Reed discussing network protocols.

Read the original TCP papers and so forth. TCP was never "efficient" nor was it intended to be. It was intended to be interoperable. It was an overlay network. It still achieves those goals far better than an "efficient" protocol (especially since efficiency seems to come at a cost - specialization, brittle response outside a narrow set of operating points, etc.).

Resilience and adaptability is far more important than "efficiency". Far too many in the research community are focused on a narrow set of metrics, invented by academics, for academics, merely because they are quantitative... We need more researchers focused on how the cars fit into the human ecology of communications, in particular some ought to be thinking about inventing better metrics for things like adaptability and resilience, which are far more relevant systems properties. Can anyone tell me a defensible measure of adaptability that has been used to rank network performance in the real world?
Adam Bosworth, discussing the lessons learned from the adoption of the web over the past 15 years covers much the same ground.
1. Simple, relaxed, sloppily extensible text formats and protocols often work better than complex and efficient binary ones. Because there are no barriers to entry, these are ideal...

8. KISS. Keep it (the design) simple and stupid. Complex systems tend to fail. They are hard to tune. They tend not to scale as well...

As I’ve argued before, spreadsheets and SQL and PHP all succeeded precisely because they are simple and stupid — and forgiving.
There's lots to digest here and this is a broad topic. The lesson seems to be about how to approach efficiency and the perils of premature optimization as opposed to interoperability (or at least the axis along which to optimize a system). This just shows the wide reach of the end-to-end principle. Still, on the matter of efficiency, the words used to describe these patterns are revelatory: "resilience" and "adaptability" on the one and a case of "sloppily extensible" and "forgiving" on the other.

Bosworth's use of the word sloppy often gets him into trouble in his advocacy because it is counter-intuitive. Mark Baker, who's keenly aware about marketing matters, augments it and makes the advocacy pitch by calling this Principled Sloppiness: "the principled application of must-ignore style extensibility".

This, it seems, is one of the underrated virtues of the web style. Biologists would label such system properties under the heady label of "evolvability" and bring Darwin into the mix and who can blame them. When you poke around the writings of those who helped design the web architecture and see the same word you know that there is something of value in this notion.

The question for a designer or architect is how to highlight these principles of system design when pitching bean counters (or even fellow technologists) who are often focused on a different narrative. How does one measure adaptability and resilience? And if one could, should the measure come into play in deciding when one should pick XML instead of ASN.1 to take an example trading off readability for binary efficiency (or for those concerned with DOM scripting, what are the tradeoffs between XML instead of JSON as formats for data interchange)?

I wonder how many nascent technologies get discarded before they can prove their worth simply because no one can articulate their worth on the resilience and adaptability axes. The paradox is that these properties of a system are often the most crucial when it comes to adoption. Oh well, software and network engineers haven't gone through their industrial revolution.

So there we have it, a brief stab at identifiying a few suspects in that murder mystery that is Rohit Khare's Who Killed Gopher?. We'll scrutinize the rest of the dinner guests in later notes.

Resilience and Adaptability, a playlist

A resilient soundrack for this joint

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Kente, Lace and Champagne

Pondering a photo and poem to (belatedly) complete the London's Got Soul Trilogy...

Kente Lace country chic

Photographers talk about seeing The Shot, knowing as they press the button that they have captured a great image. I'm not much of a photographer and have only come close to this once, 45 seconds before I took the above photo. As it turned out, it took me that long to find my camera and I missed the shot I wanted when additional people walked into the scene. The occasion was a friend's wedding. Still I think it turned out fine and the sight compelled me to declaim some spontaneous poetry, or doggerel as my friends labeled it.

The first two lines were obvious
Rolling hills of fair Essex
Stately homes and greener pastures
rolling hills of fair Essex

As was the eventual final line
Kente, Lace and Champagne

In between there was what you would expect: musings on the wonder of the Accra style

ken kukua ben issac

and Jamestown posturing melded with East London street smarts.

kobi bride ladies

It appeared to me that all were trying to create high society. One can imagine everyone settling for high tea at Fortnum-and-Mason's what with the costumes and the hats on display. And yet these are all normally unprepossessing Londoners who hustle and bustle on crowded buses and the packed cars of the underground. But give them a happy occasion and a fine setting, and they'll be all Ascot top hats and (relatively) stiff upper lips.

When you mix lace style and kente chic with a London sensibility all that's missing is champagne.

lace style

dad mary-ann

green kente smile

[Update July 7 2020]

I recently recovered my notes on the poem I had written - a kind of covidious dividend, and thought I should share instead of fussing and rewriting them as is my normal wont. Still, I suspect the title is too good and a different piece of toli may emerge later under its banner...

Kente, Lace and Champagne

Rolling hills of fair Essex
Stately homes and greener pastures

They may only see us as their care home cleaners
Invisible workers, some call us your infrastructure

For on weekdays and nights our game faces are firmly fixed
But on such an occasion the ceremonial mask slips

The light shines amidst the grey blandness of exiled time
We escape the torrid zone of the daily bread line

We are royalty back home, our traditions meet modernity
Agona Swedru expatriates dressed here in Jamestown finery

Your fashions were invented in our hometown cradles and pots
You might say cool was a word derived from our plush cloths

In your pursuit of black and all the other forms of gold
Our country chic of shimmering lace hints at our riches untold

Dresses hand sewn by seamtresess with craft and delicacy
We dance in the grand estate and enjoin all in the revelry

These African ceremonies are our relief from immigrant pain
We toast our brethren and sistren with kente, lace and champagne


And while on the topic of champagne and London, I came across this tidbit about the improbable ascendency of British wine in recent international competitions.
Champagne houses eye up English vineyards

From Kent's Isle of Thanel to the Sussex Downs, what began as a rumour, or a bruit as the French might say, may soon become a brut reality.

French champagne houses, impressed by the strong performances of English wines in international competitions, are looking to buy English vineyards.
The French, who have always looked askance at the culinary prowess of their now Channel Tunnel linked neighbours, of course were rather skeptical about this development. But they are nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to money hence they will scope out the competition.

The English reaction to this scrutiny is an interesting blend of stoicism and prickliness.
"Why should we help the French when we are already producing better champagne on our own?" he said. "We have exactly the same soil conditions and thanks to global warming the climate is actually better. The only difference is I'm not allowed to call our wines champagne."

"It's got to be better than growing cauliflower."

"At every English sporting event from Wimbledon to Ascot, we toast the victors with French champagne", he said. "We'll probably be toasting the anniversary of our victory at Trafalgar this summer with French brands too, it really gets my goat."

British wine?

Soundtrack for this note

A short playlist is in order

Kente, Lace and Champagne, a photo album

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, October 14, 2005

A Wedding

I'm getting married tomorrow so thought I'd share one of my favourite pieces of art in the two spare minutes I could snatch before dealing with last minute arrangements, welcoming family and friends, and the like. I figure I should spread the love around.

chop bar lorry park nigeria

This piece is called "No Problem". It's by Lalelani, a young Nigerian artist who works with a blowtorch smelting metal onto wood. I've always told The Girlfriend that this chop bar and lorry park is where I want to take her in lieu of say The Islands. This kind of aesthetic puts a smile on my face and, as you might suspect, I'm all smiles these days.

Those two minutes are up.

Soundtrack: Yellowman getting married

File under: , , ,

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Search Parties

A few weeks ago, midway into my recent blogging hiatus, a concerned soul pointed me to The Nonist's public service pamphlet: What everyone should know about blog depression?

Essential reading...

Apparently search parties were summoned and there were mutterings about withdrawal symptoms in comments and in my email inbox. I was even advised to seek help from the cultists (I suspect they are Scientologists but am not sure) who offer stress tests and studiously manufactured empathy in Boston Common.


Suffice to say that "life" intruded a little. Still let's ease back with a brief report on "Some things I learned during my blog break".

  • First a truism: if you can't keep food down for 10 days, you will lose a lot of weight.
  • It is unwise to have gentlemen's agreements with people who aren't gentlemen. This is especially true if you've previously characterized the people-in-question as "ever-elusive". In possibly-related news, an apartment you were told would be ready in August actually only actually becomes available a month-or-so later. "Or so" being the operative term.
  • You can't possibly pack up an apartment you've lived in for 9 years in a day. You can try but you will surely fail.
  • It is inadvisable to spend a day inside an apartment whose floors have just been polished to a very high gloss. At best, prolonged exposure to polyutherane fumes will leave you lightheaded and disoriented; at worst... well let's just say that your relationship with consciousness may become quite tenuous.
Still that is picking on just a few trying times, there have also been many highlights in the past few weeks, most notably a little engagement ceremony... matrimony beckons "Real Soon Now".

The stack of toli fragments that need to be completed keeps growing but for now you can call off the search party.

File under: ,

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Noblesse Oblige

A few quotes that have been helping me get through the past couple of weeks...

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that that so few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.

Jonathan Swift - The Battle of the Books
The following struck me forcefully with its unerring similarity to the cadences and content of a Bush speech. The sentiment of course is an extremely diluted sense of noblesse oblige. On the prescience of satirists again...
A sermon delivered to the congregation of the Church of the Holy Monument in Boggington by the Chief Constable.

"I say unto you that unless we maintain the bonds of free enterprise and free endeavour we shall be bounden to do the Devil's work," he announced from the pulpit. "Our business in the world is to augment the goodness that is God's love with the fruition of free enterprise and to put aside those things which the Welfare State handed us on a plate and thus deprived us of the need to which we must pay homage. That need, dear brothers and sisters in God, is to take care of ourselves as individuals and so save the rest of the community doing it out of the taxpayer's pocket.

Only this week , I have been encouraged to see how many Watch Committees and Neigbourhood Watches have been set up to augment that splendid work being done by the Police everywhere and in particular by the men under my command. It is not often that I have a chance or, I might say, the opportunity to do the Lord's work in the way he would have me do, namely, like your goodselves, to encourage others to free themselves from the shackles of passivity and acceptance and to go forth into the world to bring the positive and active blessings of health, wealth and happiness to those less fortunate than ourselves.

This is not to say that we must bow the knee to social need or so-called deprivation. Instead we must make of ourselves and our gifts in business and in wealth whatsoever we can. As the Lord has told me, there are as many numerous spin-offs on the way to Heaven as there are handouts on the slippery road to Hell. It is one thing to give a penny to a beggar: it is another to beg oneself. And so I say to you dear friends, assist the police wherever you can in the prevention of crime and in the pursuit of justice but never forget that the way of righteousness is the way of self-service and not the other way around. And so let us pray."

Tom Sharpe - The Midden (1996)
The shock of reading Jonathan Swift at his best cannot be discounted. The set up is done with a poker face and the exposition is so skilled that, when you realize just how far out of this world he has taken you, you can only laugh.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasse or a ragout.

Jonathan Swift - A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burthen to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.
As they say, Eating People is Wrong. File under: , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The New Formula

Some more fodder for a pet topic of mine, the new formula.

What gets my juices flowing is thinking about why it is that Crest no longer makes Smooth Mint Gel replacing it with a multitude of junk bundled with Scope mouthwash! I spend hours thinking about why so many companies these days are tinkering with the formula of their products, worsening things just slightly (but calling the result new and improved) and testing the waters to figure out just how cheap they can make things before it has an noticeable impact on the bottom line. Is that just run-of-the-mill capitalism at work or are we at a historical moment?
A year later I've come to grips with the loss of Smooth Mint Gel (although apparently a few toli readers are as peeved as me on the matter) but I continue to see the wider pursuit of the new formula as inexorable even if I am deeply skeptical. Some recent exhibits...

Pantene Pro-V

Pantene Pro-V conditioner has been given the "new and improved" treatment. It was rebranded and relaunched this spring. Now Pantene is marketed at women and it's not one of the things I use myself but I bought a bottle or two a while back as an attempt to make the apartment more congenial to certain parties. As someone with sensitive skin and hair, The Girlfriend Fiancee immediately pointed out the change.
"I don't know what they've done but it's much worse."
Sensible woman, she hoarded up a few bottles of the old formula that she could still find in shops that hadn't worked through their old inventory. As a historian, she made her prediction:
"Trust me, women are very sensitive to these things, it's not going to work."
She remarked a few months later that Pantene has been struggling. I didn't quite believe her at the time but then I've noticed of late when I pass through CVS or Walgreens that there are fire sales on the new conditioner. Pantene seems to be the only brand that is requiring constant discounts in order to move the product. Did a significant proportion of their clientele notice the change and switch to different products? I wonder if this is like the New Coke debacle albeit less publicized? So ladies, do you use Pantene these days? Did you notice this change and are you bothered? Should we be selling Procter & Gamble stock?

Oil of Olay body wash

Exhibit 2 in our "fiddling with what works" indictment is Oil of Olay sensitive skin body wash, something I settled on 6 years ago moving upmarket from bar soap into yuppiehood.

This one hit me just a couple of weeks ago and I want to nip it in the bud. As I reached up to pick up a replacement I noticed that there were 3 versions on the shelf. Hmmm...
  1. Olay Complete Body Wash Sensitive Skin Unscented
    the old faithful
  2. New Olay Complete Body Wash Sensitive Unscented
  3. New and Improved Olay Complete Body Wash Sensitive Skin Unscented Moisture
    This comes with a promotional package with some additional goodies to help the introduction.
At first I thought that this was just your garden-variety marketing subterfuge. First they dropped the "skin" in the "new" version, then in the "new and improved" version, the "skin" returned but now it is a matter of "Unscented Moisture".

What, I ask, is the difference between "Unscented" and "Unscented Moisture"?

Well consumer that I am, I tried all 3 and plainly put the "new" and the "new and improved" versions are worse - the latter version is horrible. Indeed I'm considering returning to plain old soap once I've worked my way through the extra bottles of the original formula that I promptly bought.

Luckily my local Walgreens still has to work through its old inventory and it it looks like the new formula hasn't been launched at the online shops (although I've never bought toiletries online).

If you were journalistically inclined and consulted the labels and the listed active ingredients, you would notice that they have been slowly reducing the amount of soybean oil, presumably replacing it with something cheaper. The labeling of such products is mostly a matter of obfuscation but still I noted that in the "new" version it is no longer "Maleated Soybean Oil", it's just "Soybean Oil". Per Google, maleation is the chemical process of forming a maleate, which is an ester or a salt of maleic acid. So perhaps a step in the manufacturing process was eliminated in the intermediate version. It turns out that in the "new and improved" version there is no trace of soybean oil, maleated or not.

Now as an armchair economist I wanted to test out this theory. I went to look at the charts for the price of soybean oil futures to see if there was any pattern I could discern that could account for the slash and burn of my body wash. The price of soybean, like many commodities has been slowly trending up over the past 5 years, I assume due to the ripple effect of higher transportation costs - everything comes back to oil again. However there must have been a huge shock to the system because in 2004 the price more than doubled in barely 6 months from about $16 to $35 per whatever the unit used in these contracts before returning to around $20 by year end. In 2005 the price has been trending higher to $25. Now I don't know what the lead time is for developing a new formula, but my current theory is that a bean counter decided that the volatility in the soybean oil market could no longer be countenanced and hence there was an imperative to tinker with the formula.

soybean prices 1997 - 2007

As a sidenote, why is it called Oil of Olay in the USA and Oil of Ulay everywhere else in the world? Is there some trademark dispute going on?

Now this is not to say that what we have is the be and end all of capitalism. I have an uncle who works at Dupont who has spent the best part of the past 25 years developing new compounds. Far be it from me to suggest that the world stand still. We have seen how advances in materials like titanium and graphite have changed the game of tennis and cycling to take just a few obvious applications of technological advances.

Belt-tightening sometimes needs to happen but companies often go too far. The crew on a recent United flight informed us that there would no longer be blankets distributed on their flights. Presumably by cutting on the laundry bill some jobs could be saved. But how about this assault on batteries?
The budget airline Ryanair today took its no-frills approach to new heights by banning its staff from charging their mobile phones at work.

In justifying a move likely to underline its Scrooge-like image, Europe's largest discount airline said it did not believe using a mobile phone charger at work was acceptable.
I work in an industry that wouldn't survive if we weren't marketing the new formula daily. Most users would argue that a lot of software could do with some new formula treatment.

But why can't they leave well enough alone? Why do they want to mess with my shower?

I would also mention the Phisoderm debacle, but that episode was too painful and I've managed (at length) to find a replacement. In any case, I should be all set for the next 6 months of showers, but Oil of Olay, I beg. Stop the nonsense.

Have you noticed any products going through the new formula treatment lately? Are they any better?

A Musical coda

The New Formula is the name of the 1992 album by Today. The thing though is that this, their sophomore album, was not as fulfilling or indeed as successful as their self-titled debut.


Producer Gene Griffen had broken up with Teddy Riley, who was the secret ingredient of the New Jack Swing movement and previous producer. Thus a whole cast of new producers was brought in including Dr Freeze fresh off his Bell Biv Devoe heroics. I suppose it's a decent album but I think the titles of the songs tell the ironic tale and quite apropos the advisability of messing with the formula. Stick to your core competency guys.

Oil of Olay are you listening? Don't you leave me. Why you get funky on me? Tell me why.

See also: Why the Red Delicious No Longer Is for a discussion about the taste of apples. An apple may look red and succulent, but it shouldn't look the same 6 months after it has been harvested.

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Flickr's Godfather

The 3,000th photo I uploaded to Flickr is a howler. Well at least I think it is, let's have a look (full size image).


A little context is in order...

I, and countless others, had complained about Flickr's excessive use of Flash. First I had inveighed about rendering and accessibility concerns in Cultural Sensitivity in Technology. Then I used Flickr's Flash buttons as a prominent example in The Unloved HTML Button and other Folktales.

In any case, 2 days after the folktales were told, Flickr finally switched from Flash. They no longer use a wrapper for image display - allowing native browser image rendering, and they changed their button toolbar from Flash to DHTML. I'd like to think my snarky comments were the tipping point but I won't flatter myself. They now only use Flash where it's appropriate, for drag and drop organization of photo albums, the kind of job that Flash or applets are particularly well suited for. Now of course they didn't use unloved html buttons in their toolbar but we'll take what we get. DHTML has greater reach than than Flash and accessibility concerns are more easily addressed on that front. Also there are an evolving set of design patterns for dealing with unobtrusive DOM scripting and forms.

So there I was, pleasantly surprised by their responsiveness, and going about uploading a little comic image to punctuate some later toli essay. You'll notice from the image that there were a bunch of glitches on the first morning of the big switch. The icons for some of buttons of the toolbar weren't showing up. Oh well, we'll ignore that but simply note that if they were standard HTML buttons, there would be no images to download. Moving right along...

Then I noticed a couple of typos, I had tagged the photo as sopronos instead of Sopranos and the image's title mentioned Godfarther which tickled me somewhat.
Flickr's Godfather or Flickr Goes Further?
Well anyway, Flickr implements a Click-to-Edit feature, a little unobtrusive DOM scripting that allows you to edit in place, so I corrected the title and hit the save button that appeared. That's when this error message came up and I took the screen capture

flickr dhtml error on editing title

Taking a step back for a moment, let me just say that I love glitches. They expose the interesting aspects of complex systems and, much as we aim for simplicity, software tends inexorably towards complexity. As users of software we see lots of glitches daily. As an engineer, I am always interested in the first few days of a new deployment. You can test all you want but all bets are off when you get contact with real users and the real world. As an example, Technorati's recent makeover exposed lots of unforeseen glitches and they have had to work hard to address most of them in the past month. I was chatting recently with Dale Schultz, globalization architect at IBM and noted that I have a standard set of user names when I test new pieces of software, I make sure to have hyphens (hence I use my surname), ampersands (Sun & Sun is my canonical company), and, of late, accents (Rokia Traoré) because I've been bitten by various curses in the past in the software I've written. My former team has a José López test user for the same reason. Sam Ruby uses the word Iñtërnâtiônàlizætiøn as his proving ground in the same vein. We got to discussing the tyranny of patents at IBM and I pointed him to the Prior-Art-O-Matic for a laugh. Dale is obviously many steps ahead of me and of course he tried entering a euro symbol and immediately noted that that CGI application was broken and couldn't handle euros. Glitches often tell you a lot about application internals and the things that the developers tried to foresee or, as the case may be, ignored.

But back to Flickr's Godfather, what can we say about the glitch?
  • Flickr is passing xml back and forth in their API calls.
  • They are likely using XMLHttpRequest to do the voodoo of incremental loading without refreshing the page.
  • There's an API key, probably tied to the user's identitiy that is likely passed around in every call. Sensible enough.
  • They have to implement a Javascript layer to catch API errors and display something to the user.

Now I could have determined a lot of this and more by poking around and doing the View Source investigation. At the time, I wondered if I would have done any different and concluded that my implementation would have been much the same.

I have to say that like many others I'm highly impressed with Flickr, they had defensive programming and had appropriate error messages. Most people wouldn't have bothered dealing with these boundary cases. I haven't seen similar glitches since that first day thus the teething pains were temporary and they continue to add nice features to their service.

In any case, the juxtaposition of Silvio growling and in full bloom, the Godfather typos and the error message that popped up under Silvio's hands certainly made for a little amusement then and even today and now has occasioned a short blog entry. It reminded me of an advertisement for Fosters beer I believe that goes "It touches the parts other beers fail to reach". I guess the analogue in this case is "Flickr Goes Further".

As to why I had uploaded that particular Sopranos image, well let's just say that there's a famous quote from that scene and that's for some later toli.

[Update] I tried to cross-post this to my internal IBM blog only to find that the post was chopped off at Ruby's Iñtërnâtiônàlizætiøn magic word. Thus ironically as I was pointing out glitches, I just got bitten by one. I believe BlogCentral is based on Roller software and I suppose that I'll have to figure out whether the problem is in IBM's additions or in the core framework. The interesting thing about bugs with special characters is that sometimes you can't write the issue up because the software can't handle the characters in question. Perhaps BlogCentral needs a Godfather.

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Catching Up

Some odds and ends...

I managed to upload the 4 powerpoint presentations of my cousin's Visual Introduction to Ghana to the Internet Archive for posterity. See Koforidua Fever (or Naki does Ghana).

I finally read all the newspapers I had stacked up in my apartment, some going back to April 14th. I've also now caught up on the aggregator reading front, I'm now following 285 feeds in Bloglines. But I'm still behind on email: 1800 unread in Gmail and 500 in Notes and similarly have a stack of 50 magazines to go through. This can't be good. Being a completist is no small endeavour.

It's been interesting reading the various memes of the past few months.

In politics: from Bolton to Schiavo to dissonance about Iraq and Afganistan and now London and Egypt. Throughout it has been silly season in the US media... Oh well.

In economics: stagnant wages, oil at $60 affecting everyone and of course real estate bubbles. When your cab drivers tell you that they're taking real estate courses or offer to sell you mortgages you might think back to 1998-2000 when cab driver discourse was all about the latest dotcom or networking stock. Also China unpegging the yuan from the dollar. A great unravelling in prospect...

In technology: 10 years since the web hit prime time, lots of companies celebrating anniversaries and a lot of reminiscing about what has worked and failed and how easy it is to do lightweight web services.

3 memes stand out and happily enough I'm currently working on all of these fronts:

  • Metadata (i.e. tagging)

    Lots of discussion about the annotation and the social implications of metadata. To me it's all about scribbling in the margins, evolving schemas and returning some of the things lost in the move from the physical to the digital. I was working on a little something on forms and wrote something about "bringing the moral equivalent of the notary public to the world of digital forms". I see much of the discussions of tagging and metadata as analagous, substitute notary public and forms.
  • Rich web applications

    More people are convinced about the value of increased interactivity and working on it. Finally I say.

    Surprisingly lots of people are very sensitive to naming, Peter Paul Koch writes the following
    1. DHTML is old-fashioned and deprecated; anyone who utters this phrase is ripe for some evangelization.
    2. AJAX is a buzzword; perfect for talking to marketing people, bosses, and other persons of limited brain function, but not really fit for serious use within the JavaScript community.
    3. DOM Scripting, finally, is the phrase we'll be using for our own internal communication.
    As you know I don't bleach and have my own buzzword Bleached Unobtrusive Dom Scripting (BUDS). I have hands in that budding community and the XForms world but couldn't care which technology ultimately wins.
  • Feeds, feeds, feeds.

    Atom 1.0 is indeed one of the best specs I've read since XML 1.0 and atompub looks even better. We want feeds everywhere. There was a presentation in Microsoft's past history arguing that Java is our destiny, I think Lotus/IBM is prime for a "Feeds are our Destiny" manifesto and I will write my version if no one else will. I've seen Adam Bosworth's version for Google. I only hope that the idea won't be dismissed in the same way that Bill Gates dismissed Java at Microsoft
    "Go join the Peace Corps"

Faustian pacts and Lights Out

Part of the reason I'm living in Cambridge and the US is that the infrastructure is predictable and eminently First World. Still if Lights Out is going to be a monthly or even weekly occurence, I should reconsider anew why I am not living in more congenial Ghana. Sure manhole explosions are acts of God but the number of electrical outages in the past 4 months is now approaching Ghanaian levels. This has led to a failed hard drive and power supply and, after last week's Lights Out, I've had to put in an order for a new power supply since the new one didn't react too kindly to the power disruption and surge. I suppose I should buy a UPS right? Still flashbacks to Ghana, driving home and seeing a neighbourhood dark, people gathering outside, flashlights etc. Nostalgia perhaps but this wasn't part of the bargain.

Annoying Feeds

Scott Bradner writes a weekly column for Network World which is one of the things I value most. Still sometimes I forget to read it, thus I was happy when I noticed that there was a feed for it. Ostensibly I'll be reminded when a new column is out. It turns out that they update the feed 3 times a day to put new advertisments in it so it constantly appears updated in Bloglines. I'll be unsubscribing if this continues.

Eritrean Mujahedeen

So I wrote the following a while back:
If you shared my symptoms, you would have been sure to notice the 30 seconds of video footage of Eritrean soldiers amongst the cache of videos and cds found in Afghan safehouses, as opposed to the clip from the "exclusive video" that CNN keeps repeating, whenever ratings flag, of Bin Laden's coming-out press conference in 1998. I frankly experienced whiplash when I saw those fleeting glimpses of Eritrean mujahadeen. And no one has commented on it so far as I can tell, not even Peter Bergen who's about as well informed as anyone on these matters. Really? Eritrea has a muslim insurgency? Protesting what exactly? I've heard about Somali, Sudanese, Nigerian and even American Taleban, but Eritrean? No wonder that there were biblical pitched battles in the border wars that were disastrously fought with Ethiopia over the past decade. I mean with that kind of forment and global jihadists in your midst, its no wonder that there is now a large American presence in nearby Djibouti to monitor things even if this last is couched in terms of a "small contingent of military adviser and civilian-affairs coordinators".
Well yes it seems that one of the London bombers was Eritrean. Sigh...

Concert Season

I've been attending lots of concerts and have a stack of reviews to dispense some musical toli on if I ever find the time.

  • Cassandra Wilson, Boney James and Al Jarreau
  • Digable Planets
  • Floetry, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu
  • Femi Kuti
  • De La Soul, Common and John Legend
Lots of good stuff here.

For a Laugh

Why I Will Never Have A Girlfriend

Via Random Thots: a mathematical proof... Glad to be an exception to the devastating logic of this piece.

Losing my voice

Another equation:

Feeling sick and feverish + Hot days and no air-conditioning + Construction outside bedroom window starting at 7am = West Nile Blues + Grumpiness + Unable to Sleep

It's never good to be sick when it's nice outside.

File under: , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, July 25, 2005

Miles Ahead

So Chris Lydon pinged me yesterday about a show he was putting together on Miles Davis tonight. He obviously knew that Miles is like an old friend to me and a litmus test I use to compare up-and-coming artists.

The original hook was "How to listen to Miles Davis... and Why?", it has since morphed into Miles Davis: Early, Late, Real, Yours. As The Times points out today, A Radio Program Turns to a Blog to Cull Ideas, this is a very interactive way to put a program together and the pre-show comments tell the tale about how it can engage the audience and shape the focus of the show. Participatory radio is the thing these days and the feedback loop that the two-way web allows is refreshing. You should be able to listen to it live on radio, via streaming or download the archived show.

I've been nursing a sore throat and have mostly lost my voice thus I'm not sure that I'll be able to call in and participate what with George Wein, Marcus Miller and George Cole now added to the menu.

Still here are some jumbled thoughts that I sent his way. We are both enthusiasts on this front.

So much to say about Miles and so many ways to look at him...

For some he's just a good introduction to jazz. For most people, Kind of Blue is the first jazz album they'll buy much like Bob Marley's Legend is the normal introduction to reggae.

Thus we have Miles as the Gateway Drug, the Taste of Blue which will lead to Something Else and Someday My Prince Will Come and then to Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Kelly. Maybe we need a Miles Czar or War on Miles to prevent young people from getting hooked?

There's the bandleader who always surrounded himself with great musicians and (mostly) run a tight ship. Think of Monk, Duke, Mingus or Blakey or Horace Silver whose bands were similarly proving grounds.

The list of those who passed through his band is astounding from Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in the 50s through Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter in the 60s, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, Michael Henderson, George Duke and Marcus Miller etc. He caught them young, stepped back and let them shine playing a kind of zone offense (to mix my metaphors) whatever the style of music was played.

There's the competition of the bop years, the blowing sessions with Bird and Diz. Who blew better, faster, higher? Diz? Clifford Brown? Lee Morgan? Roy Eldridge?

Then there's the First Great Quintet that I alluded to when Cookin with Rokia Traoré - the Rhythm Section indeed.

There's the Taste of Miles: he immediately recognized the artistry of Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and others. Impeccable taste in short.

The various eras of Miles like you suggest. Everybody has their own favourite era and I change every six months. Of late I've been going with the work with Gil Evans and especially Miles Ahead which verges on the orchestral blues.

Style - Nobody does it better than Miles

Competitive - He was always listening to other sounds and wanted to compete. Think of the reaction to James Brown and especially to Sly Stone in the early 70s.

Tradition vrs Modernity - respectful at times but refusing to go with the academy. As an example of the academy at work, a recent (or current?) cover of Jazz Times has a piece on Wes Montgomery in proximity to the phrase Sellout. The nerve of it! Is jazz a living music or did it end with Filles De Kilimanjaro as Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis would have it?

Ego - Miles refused to be ignored and was very sensitive to perceived slights.

Provocative - how else to describe Bitches Brew or say On The Corner?

Hubris - there was that and we must admit it

Race - since race is still very close to the fabric of this society one can talk about the kind of additional scrutiny that falls on prominent blacks from Jack Johnson to Muhammed Ali and how they negotiate it.

Sex - there is much to say about his attitude towards women. e.g. Misogyny at times, exploitative at times (pimp episodes). Is that par for the course?

There's also another aspect of Miles and sex that is worth pointing out. Why is it that when you start playing some laidback Miles (say Bags Groove with Milt Jackson) that members of the opposite sex immediately assume that your intentions, are how to put it, single-minded (e.g. Miles as a Gateway to Seduction). I suppose it's like the notion that Henry Ford could never have assumed that the back of a car would become a cultural signifier in the sexual life of teenagers in America and the rest of the world.

Drugs - must one suffer for one's art like so many jazz musicians did?

Money - well that's also worth a discussion. Did he go commercial?

Miles in twilight - I'm very interested in what he recorded with Prince and Chaka Khan in the late 80s - very little of which has been released. He had become terse, preferring concentrated bursts of trumpet and emotion rather than virtuosity. It is clear though that his influence was crucial in bringing horn-inflected sounds to His Royal Badness (the Minneapolis purple one). If you're one of those afflicted with the purple obsession you'll have somehow acquired the bootleg of the New Year's Eve jam at Paisley Park in 1987.

And it continues with the rappers today, they may not sample him (since the record companies charge so absurdly these days) but they name-check him. Think of Digable Planets or of A Tribe Called Quest in the past decade (The Low End Theory is just a matter of vibing with Ron Carter and hence Miles). The late era of any musician is always interesting, think of the pathos of Lady Day in autumn, the voice ravaged but note also the emotion of The End of the Affair.

Above all there's the music and we are lucky to have so much of it available on record. Still it is the music that happens after the show that I've been interested in, the blowing sessions much venerated in soul jazz, the little moments that stay in one's memory.

Mission: music. Glad you found Inamorata, I love tomorrow.

I subsequently noticed that the comments on the show's entry on the web site also spoke of Kind of Blue as being the Gateway Drug to jazz... Thus this is quite a meme. And it is true...

If you hear Miles play It Never Entered My Mind, you'll indubitably be led to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins' version and from there you'll branch to Duke Ellington then all bets are off, you'll get to Count Basie, you'll think of Lester Young and then you'll get to Robert Altman's Kansas City and then you come full circle with all those young lions cutting each other, James Carter, Nicolas Payton, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride etc.

There should be a Six Degrees of Miles parlour game.

As I leave you, I'm listening to Blues For Pablo and sipping some ginger tea with honey.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead like they said.

File under: , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Bullet From A Gun

I give you the Toli Remix of Derek B's Bullet From a Gun, a hip-hop photo essay in the vein of South London's vibe. Part II of the London's Got Soul Trilogy.

South London Brew

I lived in North London for 5 years in the late 80s and early 90s joining my mother during her 18 year stretch of exile from the insanity of Jerry Rawlings' Ghana. More precisely we lived in the "civilized" part of London, that's the Hampstead, Golders Green, Hendon and Brent Cross Axis of Civility. Throughout that time, I only made occasional forays into South and East London. It all seemed strangely alien to me: all hustle and bustle, poorly served by public transport, schools and local governments in disarray etc. Certain parts seemed more like Accra, Karachi or Lagos, in a word: messy. As an example, in all my time in North London I never walked into an argy-bargy (pub brawl) or got harassed by roving youths at night. Since I've left though, I've come to think of those parts of London as more interesting and certainly more vibrant even if they are indeed more difficult to live in. A lot of the cultural energy of the city comes from these less telegenic parts.

Thus I give you a photo essay on South London, This time however, your narrator will be Derek B who was there at the False Dawn of UK Hip Hop in the 1980s. Derek B truly is a Bad Young Brother with braggadocio and inventiveness to spare as you'll see from his wordplay. As a rapper he had impeccable taste, for example sampling the Oh Yeah bit from Prince's Sign O' the Times recognizing its importance long before others. The music scene in England at that time had a lot of soul (artists like Mica Paris, Omar, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul and Loose Ends), jazz funk and rare groove (Paul Laurence, Courtney Pine) from which the Acid Jazz movement emerged, as well as the beginnings the house and rave scene. DJs like Pete Tong and Westwood kept things moving. There was a lot of cross-pollination and the music produced had a multi-faceted sensibility. Other notables on the hip-hop side of things include Monie Love (Monie in the Middle and It's a Shame being the standouts) and the much-overlooked Cookie Crew who really put it on the line with I Got To Keep On, that hyperactive Old School joint.
Give them the proof that
We're down by the South Side
So you can confide
In the Cookie Crew

I got to keep on
I can't sleep on
Gaining respect
With a cool british dialect
Bad Young Brother is Derek B's most popular song, a fiercesome groove as befits the title; it even crossed over to this side of the Atlantic. For me however, Bullet From a Gun, the title track of his debut album, made a greater impression. It is a song firmly in the vein of Kool Moe Dee's Wild Wild West or great posse cuts like The Juice Crew's The Symphony. Its lyrics threw down a witty and theatrical challenge to the rest of the world affirming the existence of a soulful vibe in London. There is a direct line from Derek B to influential groups like Massive Attack or Portishead and latter-day poets like The Streets and Dizzee Rascal. He speaks to a youth culture that continues to make London the most exciting city in Europe. Although he is an East Londoner, we'll relocate him to Catford for the purposes of this post.

[Update May 2020, I've made video version you can find on Youtube]

For the musically inclined, you can sample the song here. I'll leave the mp3 up for a few days before slipping it back into the Long Tail of music and file sharing networks. Allow me then to do what the Cookie Crew suggested and
Grab the mic tightly
Serve the crowd rightly
Cause we were born
To keep it on
South London style.

Bullet From A Gun

Narrator: First There Was A Dream...

Narrator: Now there is reality...
elephant and castle
[Sound Of Footsteps]
Deptford Yoruba Community Center

"My Name Is Q. Easy Q"
"Who is Number One?"
"I Am Number One"

[snippet of James Bond theme, Bullets fire and ominous break beat begins]
James Bond 007
Licensed to kill
Easy Q, Derek B
Licensed to ill
On Her Majesty's Secret Service of rap
America, you're under attack
From the Crown Prince of poetry
The Man With The Golden Mic is me
kew gardens
You thought you'd never hear
Anybody with the gall
But Easy Q and Derek B
Got Thunderballs
I'll Never Say
Never Say Never Again
I'm not Russia With Love
You see I'm from England
london loot collage
I'll Live And Let You Die
Your soul will get cold
Your body paralyzed
As my rhyme unfolds
A billion dollar brain
Ticking inside my head
Like Diamonds are Forever
And I've got street cred
From the East End
Always say it loud
Def B-Boy
Black and proud
catford black beauty
I'm a warrior
Like Attila the Hun
That's why my posse call me
Bullet From A Gun
Derek B Bullet From A Gun
(South London Chorus)
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My Posse Having Fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're Sure Gonna Get Some"
ebo pose
East London Posse
Raving all over town
Not invited to the party
We break the door down
Here comes trouble
Cooling with my homeboys
To a real lame beat
As the girlies stand around
About to fall asleep
little yuppie eaterie
16 Strong, my posse takes over
D on the decks, Easy Q mic controller
All of the sudden the party starts to rock
To the def beats and sounds of my hip-hop
Jazz Cafe African Jazz Funk
The volume increases
Your ears wanna bleed
B-boys going crazy
Suckers doing speed
Fight breaks out
Place gets wrecked
Don't bother me boy
You'll only get decked
Catford bridge fight police doing their thing
at the speed of light
We came to party
Not to fight
So the fridge gets raided
Brew and Tennent's gone.
Doner Kebab joint owner
The quiet start rocking
The sensi smells strong
Catford Copperfield Pub
Shuffling and shaking
Speakers start to pump
The amps overload
The party's gotta stop
A roar from the posse
With the gold around the neck
Each one against the wall
With the girlie in check
The game's over and won
We're out of here
Like a Bullet From A Gun
South London Chorus (x2)
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My posse having fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're sure gonna get some"

Catford cricket
Take a trip through a park
To see an mc battle
Hot sunny day
Skeezers like cattle
The E.L. Posse
All over the place
Like government agents
No time to waste
Catford dodgy bricklayers
Standing in the corner
With my arms crossed
Laughing at the rapper
Who just lost
Sucker taken out
And I guess it's kind of funny
'Cos he's rapping for nothing
While I'm making the money
Queen Portia
Now he comes over and asks me what
He has to do to get all the way to the top
I said, "I'm a funky junky of the hip hop sound
I take this shit serious, no messing around"
east london
"My rhyme's like a bull
And oh so strong
I wear the freshest clothes
Like Louis Vuitton"
"I get to jams early,
You get there late.
Then set up cold ambush
On the 808"
big ben
"I'm a Pro, Bro
And when it's time to go,
I make sure I'll let the people
Know who's running the show"
Peckham market
"When out on the mic
I make sure I rock the night"
"Make the girlies go crazy
Throw their panties on stage"
"One more thing
While you're listening son
Make sure the rap's delivered
Like a bullet from a gun"
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My posse having fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're sure gonna get some".
Jazz Cafe - African Jazz Funk
That's right I am Number One
And I'm here to stay.
I ain't going no place no way

One more time

South London Chorus
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My posse having fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're sure gonna get some"
That sounds right to me. You like that?
OK let's chill
[bullet fires]

Fade out with breakbeat.

See also: Catford Bridge and London's Got Soul.

Bullet From A Gun - photoset

Derek B - Bullet From A Gun on Youtube

My man Derek B passed away in 2009. I am priviledged to know that he approved of my toli tribute. Rest in peace, soul brother

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,