Saturday, April 30, 2005


18 years after my tape copy was stolen from me ("borrowed" and never returned), I've finally found a copy of Jerome Prister's magical 12 inch single, Say You'll Be.

This is seminal soul funk. It was a massive hit for Ghanaians of a certain age one summer in the late 1980s. As I recall, it also did well in London clubs and was guaranteed to get people off the wall.

Sidenote: it's always interesting what crosses over from the US or the UK and becomes popular back home in Ghana. Thus I raved about Nu Shooz's I Can't Wait when I first tried out at WHRB and was embarrassed by the consequent clowning that DJ Zik sends my way to this day.

Jerome Prister is the definition of a one-hit wonder. He isn't even listed on Amazon or eBay. The entry on allmusic is pitiful: there's only a name. In recent years he has turned to the worst kind of euro hip-house and garage - the kind that throws in some allusions to Morocco in that "why can't we all get along" mode: so globalized that any authenticity or indeed musical integrity is lost. Unfortunately Say You'll Be hasn't shown up on any compilations (more precisely the one compilation is so rare that similar completetists bid it up to CEO salary heights). Thus it has been a long frustrating search, crate-digging in record shops, scouring eBay, Amazon and the like.

Instead, ever since the advent of Napster, I fire up whatever file sharing program I can (my current favourite is Gnucleus) and type in those fateful words "Say You'll Be" and sort through lots of Peter Frampton and Christine Aguilera in the hope that there is a like-minded soul somewhere. Anyway that kind soul finally put it online and I managed to complete a download to my great joy. If you see 2 copies online, you'll guess who is sharing it.

Now I've been known to spend $75 on a record, I write about musical obsession; you might see me embark on 12 step programs with fellow travellers like Nick Hornby as we work ourselves into frenzies arguing over the 10 best songs about irritation - I dare you to beat my list by the way (add your comments below). I know all the dusty groove "wreckastows" that exist - that last is an in-joke from Under the Cherry Moon in case you were wondering, from which said $75 was spent to obtain the original version of Prince's Old Friends For Sale - not the later version with insipid synthesized strings that showed up much to my disgust on the $60 Crystal Ball compilation in 1999 - like Bono said, sometimes His Royal Badness needs an editor, someone in the studio to give the occasional choice words. The folks at BMG and Columbia House keep me on first name terms with the mail men and UPS guys. Surely record companies could leverage the Long Tail and make something like this available. There is no reason for such a great song to be languishing in virtual asylum in the musical ether.

Next up on my crate-digging obsession list:

Shaniqua by Oran "Juice" Jones (of The Rain fame) from 1989.

I call The Juice a 3-hit wonder since he also did great work with Alyson Williams on the wonderful Raw which any soul singer ought to study before stepping out on stage (highlights include Just Call My Name, I Need your Lovin - especially if you can find the Soul II Soul mix, Sleep Talk and of course the other duets, We're Gonna Make It with Ted Mills from Blue Magic and I'm So Glad that she and Chuck Stanley take to church). The ballads alone might cause unwanted pregnancies and bring opportunist politicians into your bedroom.


The Juice is the prototypical P.I.M.P that the rappers are now emulating although his ostensible misogyny was a humourous pose. Per contra, I suspect the 50 Cents of this world really mean it. They don't realize that braggadacio was just that, they feel they have to live that cartoon life. (It was pointed out to me that writing per contra as I do reeks of Nabokovian pretensions but I digress - sue me)


Now mind you, I not looking for the album version of Shaniqua - that would be too easy, rather I'm in the hunt for the 12 inch Marley Marl mix featuring Big Daddy Kane. I can just hear my friends and I singing the chorus much to the dismay of english teachers and parents everywhere
You got me woked!
Spank me with your love
right after the Big Daddy finished his exhilarating verse (it's right up there with I Get the Job Done or Just Rhymin with Biz but just below Wrath of Kane and Ain't No Half Steppin').

Long live the Kane

I never quite figured out what woked meant. Was it a slang "hooked" or "whooped"? Perhaps someone can enlighten me. The song is ghetto soul nirvana nevertheless. It's been 15 years since I last heard it.

Les Nubians - One Step Forward

Lastly since I didn't post any musical toli this month, I leave you with some eye, or rather some aural candy. The best album of 2003 was by the fine ladies who go by the name of Les Nubians.

Les Nubians - One Step Forward

This is the sound of virtuosity, of young Africa mediated by hip-hop, lush Philly soul, a post-folk French post-colonial vibe, soukous ala Koffi Olomide, exuberant Jamaican reggae and most of all an affirmative vision. This is Congo meets Jamaica meets France meets Phildalphia with a Cuban twist thrown in. Les Nubians not only had the best album, they also gave the best live performance by far that year; even Zap Mama, who are no slouches themselves, must have hated having to follow them on stage. Common's amazing Electric Circus which is an musical Jimi Hendrix experience was incredibly beaten by these soul sisters.

Run to your record shops or do the Amazon or iTunes one-click thing and purchase (or as the case may be fire up whatever file sharing program you prefer).

El son Reggae is priceless. I preferred it even to the magical combination of Roy Hargrove, Erykah Badu and Q-Tip on Poetry on Roy Hargrove's Hard Groove, the other major achievement of that year. See the Toli Music awards for further picks like Donnie and Dwele.

J'Veux D'La Musique (Toute Le Temps...) reinvents The O'Jays I Love Music exquisitely. This is how you do a remake: don't be overly respectful but make it your own just like they did Sade's Sweetest Taboo (with a nice Roots remix to cap things off). Talib Kweli gives us Temperature Rising, Morgan Heritage brings Caribbean flavour to Brothers and Sisters. The ballads are heartfelt and, how to put it, "nice": Amour a mort, Que Le Mot Soit Perle and Unfaithful/Si Infidele. And if you want some techno or sheer dance try La Guerre which aims for Missy Elliot and Timbaland stylings.

les nubians

And the title track, One Step Forward is African opera, unbelievable harmonizing and naked funk. Being sisters their voices really do mesh together. Add a little kora overtones and guitar ala Franco and they prove they are truly Princess Nubiennes descendants of Makeda.

Les Nubians - Princesses Nubiennes

Hmm... Come to think of it, there's also my 10 year search for a complete version of Chuck Stanley's The Finer Things in Life ("I want to show you the finer things in life / I want to show you that love can be so right") but that's another story (shoutout to Okoro). For now, I leave you with the head-nodding groove of Jerome Prister.
Say You'll Beeeee.
Say You'll Beeeeeeeeee.
Say You'll Beeeeee.
Say You'll Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

[Update June 2006]: A bonus for long-suffering toli readers: Chuck Stanley's The Finer Things in Life was finally delivered in that wonderful internet cloud as was Jerome Prister's Say You'll Be and Orange Juice Jones' Shaniqua (mp3s hosted at divshare).

Found, a playlist

[Update November 2020]:

The obligatory playist on Youtube. It's hard to believe the hoops one had to go through to hear music in the past. These days, everything is available on Youtube - of the abovelisted songs, the only one that isn't on Youtube is the original version of Old Friends for Sale with the more personal lyrics.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Koforidua Fever (or Naki does Ghana)

I wrote the Strange Bedfellows and the Journalistic Impulse piece in a 4 hour fevered trance prompted by an offhand remark at the end of a phone call with my dad. The act of putting those thoughts together was cathartic but when I looked at the posted result I thought that it was too much, too heartfelt, too confessional and perhaps too bitter. Thus I turned to photos to dampen the impact of words that shouldn't have to be written and to show that life went on.

Sensational Fruity Delights

Since I've started to use Flickr as my online photo service of choice (as I previously recounted and despite its issues with the brown skin that India Arie sings of), friends asked why I hadn't simply tagged the photos that I considered using. Duh! Use the tools! All that folksonomic goodness you evangelize...

Thus I give you the Strange Bedfellows photo essay - the subtitle is:
This Be Ghana. This Be Koranteng.

I didn't take all of the photos that you'll see in the album and therein lies another story.


Back in Christmas 2001, many of my cousins and I made a trip to Ghana. In our own way, we had been taking baby steps to make our way back home, in my case through annual Christmas excursions starting in 1998. Various things had come into place, an election in 2000 had removed the Rawlings Chain from our neck after 18 years and, after a year of democracy and sanity, it looked like coups might be a thing of the past.


Also our parents had made their way back home whether to retire or to get their feet wet in the new Ghana (some were still in transit but their intentions were clear). This must have been the kind of impulse that many Ghanaians felt right around Independence in 1957. I know my father quickly left the Kofi Annan-types at the UN soon after independence came to Ghana. We in turn were old enough to process things and rediscover our country anew in a considered way. Thus it was a great homecoming and I believe the photos tell the tale.

me cousins presidential gardens

After a few days however, I came down with a case of Koforidua Fever which is a local variant of Dengue Fever. It was excruciating pain, memorable and spine-jarring fevers and chills for the next ten days. Thus I was bed-bound and had to live vicariously through the phone calls from my cousins who were clearly having a ball.

At the summer hut in Aburi

My dear cousin, Naki (or as we call her of late: Just Naki) picked up the piece and preserved the photographic record for all of us.

Arrival in Jamestown

She had been in exile for 15 years (this was her first time home - again nothing out of the ordinary for us mid-Atlantic types). Her parents and whole family could have made great submissions to the National Reconciliation Commission about the traumatic upheaval that had occurred in their lives. That is if they didn't happen to be stoic types "descended from a long line of fishermen" who just got on with things. She must have taken 1,000 photos during the trip as her act of catharsis.

horns blowing for President for life

She's an architect

fountain splash at Circle

and interior designer


thus her visual acumen

electricity bypasses huts

is far sharper than anything I'll achieve.

Frankies in Osu

My own myopia is pervasive in actuality and in the metaphorical sense...

Osu at night

She edited some of the photos into a series of 4 presentations that she gave to her architecture firm in Boston when she returned. Of course it took me fully 3 years to actually look at them and recognize their importance but that's how these things go.

Together the presentations constitute one of the best visual introductions to Ghana I've seen.

There are some limitations in that, given her profession, she tends to be more interested in buildings than in people.

The old ones (the buildings that is)

Jamestown buildings

Their nooks and crannies


The follies under construction (ship buildings?)

Peace FM ship building - Abeka Junction

The commercial ones


The cool ones

Sati house

And of course, the obscene ones (the East Legon mansions that a combination of drug money and Strange Bedfellows made possible)

The Lion House in East Legon

Also a fair number of photos were taken from cars

Jamestown rally

and are "outside-in"


rather than springing from the ground up as it were


But that's what 15 years of forced exile will do to your perspective.

Chop bar

For a great example of photos from the trenches in Ghana see Asibi Adormah's current work especially those in her native Bolgatanga in Northern Ghana.

However as a creative type, Naki picks up far more 'local' flavour than I do

streets of Accra

Pointing out the essentials (e.g. the pervasive air conditioners that need cages to prevent thieves from swiping their cooling hum or the solar-powered street lights that are being tried out these days)

Essential caged air conditionners

And with the kind of wit

ekene and anuli check email

and wonder

Mangoes in Auntie Akwele Garden

that I admit I freely plunder

Things come home to roost

time and again

Water tanker blues

for journalistic effect.

Guiness cowboy Africa style

I hope you enjoy them

Tin and asbestos rooftops of Jamestown

As much

Akwele driving a hard bargain

as I do


This Be Ghana. This Be Koranteng

The 4 presentations that she created amount to 106 MB which goes far beyond the meagre storage and bandwidth limits that Comcast provides. They are really worthwhile to see because they have gone through her inimitable filter and are full of delightful juxtapositions; she is in the grip of the Editorial Impulse.

Update: the presentations can be found on most days on any Gnutella-based file sharing network. I use Gnucleus as my client of choice. You can also download them from the Internet Archive (I managed to upload them via Details:
  • Ghana1.ppt (29.5MB) - the visual introduction to Ghana
  • ghana2.ppt (12.9MB) beaches (White Sands) and Legon, the University of Ghana
  • ghana3legon.ppt (36.4 MB) - the houses of East Legon, Accra
  • ghana4aburi.ppt (27.4 MB) - up in the "mountains" (or rather the hills) of Aburi

Osu RA

I still haven't been able to figure out how to seed them to a Bittorrent stream (perhaps I'll need to tweak the port-forwarding settings of my Linksys box and the ZoneAlarm firewall - arrgh NATs and the breaking of Internet Transparency and the end-to-end principle!).If anyone can give pointers to a host or instructions to help me share them via Bittorrent running through a Zonealarm firewall on Windows XP and a Linksys box, I would be greatly indebted. I'm in a giving mood these days and want to share my joy...

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Modest Proposal

She said yes!


Oh yes!

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Proverbial Zingers

Further nuggets for the Toli Scrapbook... ala Flaubert's Dictionnaire des Idées Reçus (Dictionary of Received Ideas).

This month's zingers post covers a lot of ground. There has been a veritable effusiveness of jaundiced (and flowery - as my MIT-educated co-worker put it) prose and commentary from this joint on all sorts of topics over the past 6 weeks. I hope these proverbial zingers provide a concise counterpoint or explanation of the threads that weave all of it together.

A skewed outlook on life

He liked his women freshly jilted.

Martin Amis - Heavy Water and other Stories (2000)

See also: Inman Square Still Life

On the advisability (or lack thereof) of sending out withering emails to one's team I just did this past week, and having to deal with the consequent fallout (consignment to the most menial sytem administration duties). Note to self: being right without being judicious is a fool's paradise.
Words are like bullets. When you release them, you can't call them back.

Gambian proverb

An insolent tongue is a bad weapon.

Senegalese proverb

The tongue weighs practically nothing, but so few people can hold it.

Ghanaian proverb

It is a stupid dog that barks at an elephant.

Ugandan proverb

On why I search

Minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open.

Nigerian proverb

A touch of quasi-religious optimism perhaps

The sun will shine on those who are standing before it shines on those who are sitting.

Liberian proverb

And perhaps a desire for no regrets

The stone that lies at the bottom of the riverbed, cannot complain about feeling cold.

This one from my mother who had a little too much cognac (Christmas day 2003)

On being careful

If you want to improve your memory, lend someone money.

Zimbabwean proverb

When you are surrounded by vultures, try not to die.

Proverb from Cote D'Ivoire

On journalism in Africa

For after all our business is not only to discover wrongdoing, it is our business to expose lies, to expose smears. Not only the lies that public officials tell but the lies that are told about public officials. Much of the instability that has dogged Africa has its roots in the inability of the press to clearly tell the public which of the many rumours are true and which are not true. There is this idea that has taken root that getting access to the facts and making them public will hinder and undermine government, I have heard the argument that much of government is so complicated and so delicate that it is impossible to portray all the intricacies in a newspaper article or radio programme. In an area where democratic practices are yet to take root, I will suggest that it is in the interest of government that things are exposed.

There is a saying in my language that it is difficult for head lice to prosper on a bald man's head. If one were to take the saying further, even though I acknowledge it is dangerous to try to improve upon the sayings of the elders, head lice prosper the most in thick grown hair. Or to coin another phrase, the mould grows where the sun rays don't get to.

In the Public Eye (November 1998) - Thoughts on the difficulties faced by African journalists in obtaining public information

On The Importance Of Biting Satire

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound.

The whimsical and comic artefacts of the best satirists are side-benefits; their purpose is really to serve as social barometers and canaries in the mineshafts of our communities.

See also Bolton's Hair: No Brush With Greatness
And 3 days later: Is John Bolton Going Down?

On the prescience of the best satirists

With apologies to Michael Froomkin, this is what I meant...

Sir Edward cheered up... It was worth decanting a really good claret. Besides he had a theory to explain why Lady Thatcher was such a passionate advocate of arming the Bosnian Muslims. Her son was an arms dealer and by backing the Muslims so openly she was bound to help dear little Markie's standing in Saudi Arabia. It was in the discovery of real motivation in politics that Sir Edward Gilmott-Gwyre found his greatest pleasure.

Tom Sharpe, The Midden (1996)


Sir Mark Thatcher has pleaded guilty in South Africa to being negligent in investing in an aircraft said to have been used by people allegedly plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea 'coup plot' (January 2005)

Ergo Strange Bedfellows and the Journalistic Impulse

The Midden

On language

Asankasa: noun.

1. a radio. From the Ewe language of Ghana, literally rendered it means "The bird who sings"; circa 1930s

2. a later sub-sense, circa 1960-63, in which the words from the radio should not be trusted; said new meaning arising when Kwame Nkrumah's true colours were shown e.g. the propaganda of a one-party state

Inept excess

If you no for chop fufu before, you no sabi the sweeticity of life.

Self circa 2000 - my licence to practice pidgin was thereby revoked

Celebrating the beauty of the oral tradition and of the Griot

Il était devenu le Maître de la parole incontestable, non par décret de quelque autorité ou d'action culturelle (seuls lieux où l'on célèbre encore l'oral) mais par son goût du mot, du discours sans virgule. Il parlait voilà... S'il y rencontrait une commère folle a la langue, disponible et inutile, manman! quelle rafale de blabla...

Solibo parlait, il parlait sans arrêt, it parlait aux kermessess, it parlait aux maneges, et plus encore aux fêtes. Mail il n'était pas un évadé d'hôpital psychiatrique, de ces déréglés qui secouent la parole comme on se bat une douce...

On s'assemblait pour l'écouter ... un silence accueillait l'ouverture de sa bouche: par ici, c'est cela qui signale et consacre le Maître.

Solibo Magnifique, by Patrick Chamoiseau

solibo magnifique

For the french and creole-challenged, here's the english version, slightly less musical to my ears...

He had become a Master of the Unanswerable Word, not by decree of some folkloric institute (the only place where they still celebrate the oral tradition), but by his taste for the word, for speech without commas. He talked, voilà... He talked to everyone, to a woman tattling tongue-crazy, available and useless, oh mama! what a gust of blah-blah..

Solibo talked, he talked ceaslessly, he talked at fairs, talked by the ridges, and even more at parties. But he was not some runaway from a psychatric ward, one of those loons who jerk out words as casually as they put their feet up.

We gathered to listen to him... a silence welcomed the opening of his mouth; around here it is this that signals and anoints a Master.

Solibo Magnificent, by Patrick Chamoiseau as translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov (with an adaption by me: ward rather than hospital)

Solibo Magnificent

A Manifesto of sorts

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?

Curtis Mayfield - We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue - Curtis 1970

See also: Lights Out

Coalition of the Willing

Le recensement de la coalition censée accompagner les Etats-Unis et la Grande-Bretagne a atteint, dans le discours que M. Bush a prononcé à Tampa, le nombre de 48 pays, dont les archipels doublement pacifiques de la Micronésie, des îles Marshall et de Palau, qui n'ont pas d'armée.

Again for the french-challenged... Le Monde's 2003 survey of the members of the Coalition of the Willing that embarked on the Iraq escapade simply noted that such prominent members, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands for example, actually don't have armies.

Existential Defiance and Assertiveness

Just because a lizard nods its head doesn't mean it's happy.

Old Ghanaian proverb

Again that Journalistic Impulse I'm following.

Ghana Lizard

From The Wire

Quotes from Season 2 and 3 of HBO's The Wire which thankfully will return next year. Hooray.
"Damn Calvin! You know I got the bingo tomorrow!" - Caroline

"N---a is you taking notes in the middle of a f---- criminal conspiracy!?!"
- Stringer Bell (wonderfully played by Idris Elba)

"Bring me a Shrek2 slushie an' some Krispy Kreme!"
- Squeek

"Shine that up and put $7.50 on it... Shame to let a good toaster go to waste over a frayed cord"
- Proposition Joe

See also On The Wire a blogospheric parable of sorts...

How to get a feature deferred in the software world

The state of the art is passive-agressive equivocation. I have only reached for those heights once:
Bob and I discussed/brainstormed what we thought were the issues that the current approach that we have started working on needed to address. As to the issue of cost of some of these issues, I think others with greater experience in the Freelance architecture would be better qualified to say.

On the other hand, with some measure of handwaving, we are reasonably confident to be able to get the feature to at least "demo quality" in a timeframe close to our current feature freeze date.

I have listed below the new areas of code we need to write, the issues that we need to address and, if relevant, how our approach would deal with it. I also point out some of the potential risk. In essence this is the incremental cost that is incurred with going from a text-only approach ... to the current proposed scheme.

From a missive to co-workers circa 1997.

See also: "Sharp-elbowed bureaucratic maneuvering".

Psychic Insights

A look at the psyche of a people under stress, the Nigerians, as they took baby steps to emerge from 30 years of military rule - a life of depradations by Unknown Soldiers and the Coffins for Head of State they leave in their wake:
Whatever happened then, I thought to the central Nigerian belief in CAN DO.

The exploits of various preacher men and the extraordinary hold they seem to exercise on the lives of people was to amaze me throughout the three months or so that I spent travelling around the country. I am therefore not too surprised now that the whole of Nigeria has been seized by the "predictions" of another of these preacher men, who has pronounced that the hand over of power from the military to the elected government on May 29th will not take place. According to this particular Pastor, a certain Tunde Bakore of the Latter Rain Assembly, God had spoken to him that not only is General Olusegun Obasanjo the elected president, not Nigeria's Messiah, "he is a ram being kept for slaughter". This prophet speaks in particularly gory details about his vision. According to him, the axe will come down on Obasanjo's head and he will be hewed into pieces, right before our eyes. Two weeks ago, rumours swept the country that the General had died/been killed under strange circumstances.

There were riots in Lagos, property was destroyed and many people were injured when youths took the streets because according to them, "they" have done it again... Who are the "they"? The same "they" that killed Chief Moshood Abiola had done it again. General Obasanjo had to go on television to assure the country that he was still very much alive. In the meantime, it appears the General is not taking any chances, he has gone on a fast and a prayer for good health and success in the job he is about to take on. The General who is said to have become a born-again Christian during his incarceration for alleged coup plotting under the late unlamented General Sani Abacha has not treated all these reports of visions about his impending death with the nonchalance one suspects he would have done some twenty years ago. For the past two months his farm has been the site of constant praying by various groups trying to neutralise Pastor Tunde Akore's vision.

Everybody appears to be a believer. The difficulty comes when you try to pin down exactly what it is that people actually believe in.

The Nigerian Elections - A matter of confidence (1998)

See also: Tradition and Modernity

See further wistful and jaundiced zingers.

See other toli zingers

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

On The Importance of Biting Satire

So Michael Froomkin is upset about Robin Givhan's recent commentary on John Bolton - Bolton's Hair: No Brush With Greatness. He writes:

I suppose there has been a dumber Washington Post article, but offhand I can’t think of one.

The Senate is considering John Bolton’s fitness for office, an issue that has implications for our policy towards North Korea in the past and present, and the world in the future, and the Post Style section runs a critique of the man’s hair, mustache and shirt?!?
Fair enough, the clothes don't make the man; everyone knows that. There is almost a sense of disdain that the Style section of the Post will deign to weigh in on political matters instead of the Ivory Tower of law professors. With respect, the reasoned discourse of Froomkin and various others is a vital part of my daily reading. Indeed the ruminations of these sedate, professorial types are the first things that Bloglines presents to me when I fire up my conversational browser engine.

But here, I think he understates the importance of satire in social commentary. Saying "The Emperor has no clothes" as this piece almost literally does is a very valuable thing in human affairs. And Bolton is far from being down and out. It is only a truism to say that his appointment and imposition by a Party and administration that controls the 3 branches of the US government is a very literal slap in the face of the UN as an institution, and that amorphous mass we call "The International Community".

Unlike say handing Robert MacNamara the job at the World Bank, the Bolton episode, and Paul Wolfowitz's recent ascension to that same institution (I should be careful about what I say), are cases in point about the mindset of these very serious neocons. This is in line with all the appointments of this current administration. I'll only mention Gale Norton at Interior, and the various memos, tweaks of rules, and insidious regulations written in backrooms by churchgoing, wonky policy-types that Froomkin daily decries.

Theirs is a determined and focused program to reshape and tilt the playing fields of the US and of world affairs at large. I am less concerned with how Americans decide to manage or mismanage their patrimony. The body politic of the US has proved to be amazingly resilient to similar depredations in the past. I may worry perhaps about an economy that my future children will have to live in, about housing bubbles and their impact on my prospective forays into real estate, or that I barely beat inflation in this year's raise, or even the increased cost of my trips to visit my sister in London. By and large however, in economic terms I am one of those in whose favour the economic tide is turning; I get the incidental backwash of the current single-minded focus on the top 1% of American society.

Having, however, to deal with the collateral damage of Quiet Americans in my native society means that I feel that this is something that should be resisted vigourously and at every opportunity. I have written just in the past week, manifestos about how it feels to be grow up as the grass that elephants trample on. Others have the luxury of picking the settings of their battles with care and can choose to make more judicious interventions. As the Ga proverb my father is so fond of recounting so vividly puts it:
An elephant which is lean is still bigger than a cow.
Politicians understand very well the power of ridicule and fighting against the cultural Zeitgeist. Just ask Howard Dean if he will ever again open his mouth in a public forum without vetting, and ask if we are not all the worse for losing his very serious, if overly blunt, political insight. The daily headlines bespeak a sadness on that front.

The fabled Emperor knew at the instant the child spoke those words that life would no longer be the same. In the same vein then, I'd suggest that Froomkin instead think of commentary of this sort as in tune with the purity of that child's impulse. The measured and courteous hand-wringing of the Democrats in this, and other, Senate confirmation hearings are emblematic of decorous insipidness. Catty, biting, personal pieces like Givhan's are about as vital as can be, and sometimes even more effective acts of resistance.

There's a reason why satire is about the most dangerous thing for the powerful. The visual fodder of video bloopers on TV shows are fine as far as these things go. The Griots of times past and current also have this powerful ability with their storytelling and the sounds of kora strings to get at the same essence. Ever since humans have had writing systems however, it has been the pen, quill or the wielded keyboard that has been the weapon of choice (if they were here perhaps, the hieroglyphic painters might disagree). With notable exceptions, including current favourites in other media, Dave Chappelle and John Stewart, satire has been something that is best done with writing. In the blogosphere, the ever-witty Billmon has been a leading exponent of accurately sourced quotes and delightful juxtapositions in service of this same impulse but even he knows that sometimes you have to resort to the down and dirty column.

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound.

The whimsical and comic artefacts of the best satirists are side-benefits; their purpose is really to serve as social barometers and canaries in the mineshafts of our communities.

In certain Ghanaian traditions, one day of the year is reserved for the entire village to berate the chiefs, village elders or whatever else has irked them during the past year without fear of reprimand or disapproval. Indeed it is encouraged as being healthy and liberating to lampoon the chief and the bureaucratic proceedings that trouble us everywhere. The wide variety of clowning and comic antics that ensues is fascinating fodder for tourists these days. There is a serious intent however in these ceremonies. The monopoly of coercion of the state is a burden that we have decided is a good tradeoff for our societal organization. The responsibility of the powerful to the social fabric means that they should be ever mindful of the tenuousness of their village's approbation. Being subject to your subject's ridicule is a small burden to bear.

Indulge me while I again quote the great Gil Scot-Heron in 1980's "B"-Movie who also has a definitive musical contribution in song and poetic jazz-funk which spoke to Ronald Reagan's earlier impulses in the Boltonian direction.
The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia.
They want to go back as far as they can - even if it's only as far as last week.
Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards.
And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse or the man who always came to save America at the last moment; Someone always came to save America at the last moment.
Especially in "B" movies.
And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan. And it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at like a "B" movie


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

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

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

[Refrain repeated about 25 times or more in an apocalyptic crescendo with a military cadence.]
Read all those lyrics or even better listen to the music itself.

The thought that in historical terms, Ronald Reagan might prove to be an A-list artist as compared to the B-movie of Geoge W. Bush, "the nuclear nightmare of diplomacy" that our man Gil speaks of, is spine-tingling to me. Hence I am all in favour of whimsy as a means of counteracting this awful prospect.

And this here piece on John Bolton is a case in point. Bolton is a serious person, to be sure, with an intense focus and likely sharpness of thought. The piece is about how to use one's powers of observation to cut down in 800 words or less a puffed up and self-important git used to running roughshod over all in his path. It's about illuminating the disdainful mindset of an administration. Ridicule, in short, in the service of journalism. No sharper dagger can be thrown. I only wish I had Givhan's economy of thought. I wouldn't be writing 10,000 word blog entries on the journalistic impulse.

Bolton's Hair: No Brush With Greatness
John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, desperately needs a haircut. It does not have to be a $600 Sally Hershberger cut. Bolton simply needs the basics. Tidy the curling, unruly locks at the nape of his neck, tame the volume at the crown, reel in the wings flapping above his ears, and broker a compromise between his sand-colored mop and his snow-colored mustache.

He needs to do this, not because he should be minding the recommendations of men's fashion magazines or grooming experts but because when he settled in before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week to answer questions about his record, his philosophy and his intentions at the U.N., he looked as though he did not even have enough respect for the proceedings to bother combing his hair -- or, for that matter, straightening his tie, or wearing a shirt that did not put his neck in a chokehold. Bolton was one wrinkled suit away from being an insolent mess.


A Hollywood costumer could not have ordered a more perfectly stern Washington insider. Bolton embraces with a flourish all of the cliches that afflict so many men in Washington. During this testimony, his hand was constantly reaching up to adjust his no-frills glasses. His attire was not merely bland but careless. His hair was so poorly cut, it bordered on rude. Bolton might well argue that appearance has nothing to do with capabilities. But it certainly can be a measure of one's respect for the job.
Emphases mine.

See also 3 days later: Is John Bolton Going Down?

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Lights Out

So last night, right around 11:30pm, a big power surge rippled through your mid-Cambridge neighbourhood.

Your first thought as the lights went out and computer sessions abruptly ended was that Acts of God, the tsunamis of this world or, in this case, the inept dealings of NStar, the now-deregulated electricity company, with the overwhelming complexity of their power grid, are particularly apt reminders of the importance of perspective in human life.

Because after all, why exactly were you trying to get work done at midnight connecting to the corporate network and trying to figure out the remote access passwords to servers on which you were planning to test your newly-written software for the next few hours. Wouldn't it have been better to be sleeping or simply chatting with your loved ones? You are still living like a "just-out-of-college" engineer, burning the midnight oil, rather than someone 10 years on with attendant responsibilities and perspective on things. There's wisdom in the complaints from your parents, numerous aunts and especially your grandmother about why you haven't sorted your life out, bought a house or gotten married. What were you really trying to achieve?

You even start reconsidering your curmudgeonly, Luddite tendencies and re-evaluate anew the reason you haven't gotten a mobile phone even as you expound at length on cutting edge software. It would have been fun to be able to talk to The Girlfriend. After all she had just turned in the PhD dissertation this afternoon, a 5 year labour of love, blood, sweat and tears whose genesis you've been an integral part of whether through editing, printing, technical support or all those long conversations. Hours earlier she had set off to catch a plane to deliver a paper at a conference at Bryn Mawr. You don't even know if she made it. It would have been good to simply shoot the breeze and think about the grand vistas and opportunities that lie ahead of both of you. You'd at least have wanted to tell her again how proud you were and those other things.

The few things that you lean on in this mini disaster recovery period are all battery-powered: your laptop, your organizer, and the watch you use to figure out the time. You wish everything in your life had a backup battery-powered system. Living in the US, where power and infrastructure is so reliable, blackouts, or Lights Out, as they call it in Ghana, are memorable events. You remind yourself to get the UPS system that you put on your wishlist 6 years ago and also to invest in APC because even though the dollar has gone to hell these days, there's a vast developing world out there where their products would be in demand.

Some would say that Lights Out is no big deal, indeed it has been the daily bread of your Ghanaian experience. It is only in the West, where infrastructure problems were solved in this past century, that such things are memorable. Lights Out has been a singularly rare phenomenon in your 23 years in Europe and America. Still this is the second time in a few months that the Cambridge electrical system has failed so dramatically. You say to yourself that the US is becoming a Third World country.

It's a reminder though, of the things you take for granted. Almost everything you use requires a good electrical supply. No TV for narcotic effect. No internet for conversational fulfillment or information dissemination, and certainly no wi-fi nodes to point your laptop at to continue your work. Incipient thoughts about continued work are now definitively delusional. There's also no power to the fridge, you note when you fetch yourself a drink. You wonder about the economic costs of unreliable power in the developing world: the whole paraphernalia of additional surge protectors, power stabilizers, the noisy diesel generators that punctuate the sounds of any African town, the mass of broken electronic equipment, the mountains of spoilt food. That is a heavy price people pay daily, the wages of poverty as it were.

The flashlight that you remembered to place in that closet is your best friend. The fact that this is only the fifth time you've had to resort to stumbling around to bring it out says a lot. You remember the smell of kerosene lamps that were fodder for nostalgia every time you went to your mother's village as a child. These days, back home, they use rechargeable lanterns although the quality of the fluorescent light is harsher. Your Uncle Senyo fondly recalls that his myopia stems from his illicit nightly reading of books huddled under the covers with the glow of kerosene lamps during his childhood in the village of Abutia in the 1950s. Thoughts of fire hazards never cross the minds of the young.

Everything seems to require electricity these days, including your bedside alarm clock from which the lovely tones of the BBC that normally put you to sleep would radiate. You wonder why you didn't pick up that Grundig Wave Boy shortwave radio you saw advertised in the back of the New Yorker or that legendary Sony ICF-310, the gold standard of radios past. Battery powered portable radios forever changed humanity in this past century. They have impacted far more lives than even TV or this Internet thing you evangelize daily.

That's when the neighbours who've been prime material for your studies in urban anomie recover their humanity. We all gather and knock at each other's door trying to figure out what's going on, if everyone is ok, who has spare batteries or flashlights. You envy those who have the Maglites rather you scrawny plastic piece-of-junk flashlight. Another item for your Amazon wish list.

20 minutes later, the power is restored to parts of the neighbourhood. Of course when this happens, you realize that, since your apartment complex is an old building, things will be a little complicated. There are no circuit breakers to be tripped, and indeed it isn't a simple matter of replacing all those blown fuses. Fully a third of the apartments simply have no power. There's a larger electrical problem to be dealt with in coming days. Before you go to bed you position your flashlight up on top of your fruit bowl to get enough light to change the fuses. One of them didn't blow but better be safe than sorry. You replace them both. You notice you only have 3 more fuses. You might dream of circuit breakers tonight. You remember that you have the MP3 player somewhere on which you've carefully assembled a playlist called, La Freak (or African music nirvana). When you find it in the corner, you decide to press the shuffle button and instead let shuffle serendipity be tonight's lullaby.

When you wake up a few hours later. You think about the configuration of your day and how you're going to make things work, whether the electricians of NStar are going to come around or if the building superintendent, the ever elusive Charlie, will handle everything. You suspect it will be much like the 2 foot wide hole in your bathroom ceiling that took weeks to deal with a few years ago. Don't fool yourself, you'll have to make the call for an electrician yourself. Hmmm. 411 or Yahoo Local? Decisions, decisions.

Still that is only a vague complication. You decide that well, you'll to go to the office, where there's power and phone (although you remember that the bean-counting accountant types of Corporate America really did send that email around a few months back asking you to validate that you really needed your office phone since in your high-tech instant messaging life, it isn't used as much these days). You might need to let the electricians into your apartment if Charlie doesn't handle things today. True the 69 bus makes it only a 15 minutes door-to-door exercise between work and home but public transport is what we know in America. You've bravely resisted the American necessity of cars for 15 years, but as you sigh, you suspect that a cell phone, car and a better house will have to bought in the next year. Alan Greenspan and US economy are going love you. You feel ambivalent about giving comfort to John Snow or Dubya.

Then it strikes you, it's Tax Day today and as usual, things have been left to the last minute. Well you'll just have to make it work somehow. Never mind those fires you're trying to put out at work.

Still though, you think back to that moment last night, when you and your neighbours simultaneously said "Oh shit" when someone asked, "What about Frances?". Indeed, what about Frances, that remarkable 96 year old woman who lives on her own on the 5th floor? She can barely walk down the stairs at the best of times and the immediate fear is that she is now trying to make her way down in the dark. A delegation is dispatched full of concern to check on her. Thankfully she was fine through all of this, although she had stumbled and bumped her hip as she poked around looking for her flashlight. She had just about found it and had been on the verge of attempting to step out to talk to the neighbours with her microsteps.

You all count your good fortune that no ambulance had to be dispatched. You wouldn't want to be the neighbours explaining to news anchors on the News at 11 why the old lady died on your building's stairs.

In any case, this is the kind of thing Frances lives for: six neighbours at her doorstep bearing flashlights and warm smiles. She even wants to invite us in to her apartment although we demur. Still as we stand at the door and begin to exchange pleasantries at our good fortune and Lights Out of yore, everyone hushes as she starts recounting how life was growing up in the early part of the last century: her childhood during the years of the Great War (she muttered something about the Kaiser that you didn't quite catch), teenage life in the roaring twenties in Massachusetts, and then the complications and frustrations of a young adult living through the Great Depression. You all just let her talk for the next twenty minutes. She expounds on how this country is going to hell, how she doesn't like what Bush is doing to Social Security. And the theory from that article on the dollar that she was reading from the recent publication of the Federal Reserve of Boston where she spent a good 40 years of her life. God help you Dubya, an aroused 96-year old woman is not someone you want to cross.

Seeing a mind so lucid on a frame so wizened is invigorating. You start thinking that you should start working out again; your health insurance program even offers keep-fit incentives. This software life of yours hunched in front of screens is unnatural. She talks about her two sisters who have died recently in their nineties and how she misses them. She wishes the light was back on, she wanted everyone to see the poem that her niece's 11 year old son had penned for her. You remember it however. She had been clutching it in her bony hands and had read it to you when you encountered her on the stairs last week on one of her half-hour daily trips down those stairs to see the mail man. The boy was a talented writer and the way he described the quality of the snow that was falling in the yards of his native Connecticut where he grew up was inspired. You had told her as much and that the sky was limit for the boy. She had beamed in appreciation, a proud grand-aunt.

As she reminds us about her niece, someone offers a cell phone to make a call to her. Frances says: "Oh no I wouldn't want to use yours, she'll think something is wrong. Let me use my own phone". We all troop into the apartment in search of the phone, 7 flashlights beaming all around in orchestral harmony, and then say our goodbyes as she talks to her niece and explains this night's excitement. You make a mental note to yourself about the cell phone again. What about that T-Mobile family package The Girlfriend keeps talking about? Hint-hint: family. Do you really want to cough up the money for that Treo they have since you love your trusty Handspring Visor Pro and don't want to carry another gadget in your pocket? $500 is a lot even with incentives and rebates. Well think about that tomorrow.

As you all step out into the corridor and prepare to see whose apartment now has light, arrangements are made to check up on her in the morning. This has been the glorious moment when you all discovered that you indeed had a community - one you weren't even aware of. That's when first names were exchanged. That's when people's professions were revealed. Little did you know that the man who's been living right across from your apartment was actually a very interesting Geography professor, who's knows all about Africa. You always had him down as an Unabomber type. That's when the virtues of small talk paid off. You chuckle about the fact that 4 months after your last missive about her, and, as is her wont, Frances still misheard your name, Koranteng is still Frank to her. "Goodnight Frank", she had said as you took your leave.

The time is 6am on the clock at the top right of your laptop's screen. The early morning light that you so love is appearing and you can even hear the birds chirping in the background. They weren't as troubled as you that it snowed in Boston even on April 12th and that you regretted not having your wool cap to cover your head. They've seen it all before. The tree outside your window that is the cause of your annual allergies has barely begun to flower. You can't wait for the heat and the comfort of its bloom and attendant pollen. You also anticipate the sweet, sickly smell of rotten food that will slowly emanate up from the garbage bins that are under the living room windows in this your bachelor pad, the smell that The Girlfriend so often remonstrates you for when she annually threatens to dump you for your infuriating inertia.

Sure you could move and change is indeed inevitable. Still, you've enjoyed this Cantabrigian interlude. Between the Harvard Years and this past decade of professional work, you've spent almost half of your life here. You've become a true mid-Atlantic type.

As the gauge on your laptop's battery power slowly dwindles and hits 5%, you write:

There are unexpected benefits to Lights Out.
Best to shut down the laptop now though, maybe you'll post these notes to that blog of yours - the one that people of late have been allusively insinuating is taking so much of your time. When you get to the office there's bound to be electricity, phones and all those other accoutrements. There are obvious creature comforts in working for Big Blue. Remember to pack the TurboTax cd and all your tax materials. Don't forget the wool cap; the Boston spring is illusory. You wonder when the first bus 69 leaves and where the bus schedule is. Time for a shower, you've got a big day ahead of you.

Lights Out.

See also: Frank and Frances (or 500 Steps)

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

On XForms, XPath, CSS, Brevity, Syntax And More

The always interesting Mark Birbeck of formsPlayer has a nice article up on his blog.

Ostensibly it's about "CSS, the XForms Dependency Engine, and 'Dynamic Infosets'", and he starts out by asking why there are 2 main languages (CSS and XPath) for selecting and addressing nodes within a DOM. It's a good question, and one that many have asked before. The piece is probably the definitive consideration of the question and he's a great guide, walking us through all the issues involved.

What is more interesting to me is the wider point that he goes on to make as he lurches into a very useful discussion of how we design languages and layer and model our systems. Almost in passing he addresses an issue I find most fascinating which boils down to importance of ease of authoring and syntax in technology.

The mental makeup of human beings means that brevity matters and "intuitiveness" becomes a concern. As an example, so long as the length of phone numbers was low, they were easily memorable, these days however, with 10+ digit dialing, we rely on Caller Id and programming numbers into our phones. Thus our cognitive faculties and our short-term powers of recall come into question. Being able to control the nicknames and identifiers we use in our buddy lists is a very significant factor in the spread of instant messaging and now applications like Skype. Identifiers matter significantly in this respect. The simplicity of a URI as a key, and memorable tenet, of the web architecture is a similar case in point.

From another angle on the issue, consider that not everyone can tilt their heads enough to handle the parentheses of a typical Lisp program. Most programmers can, on the whole, and some, like the Paul Grahams of the world, even wear it as a badge of honour. Of course a good computer science program should expose budding engineers to this way of thinking and many do. But these, like the Smalltalk gurus and others, are sadly outliers in the software landscape. I would hazard here that the largest impediment to the widespread adoption of the elegant programming model of Lisp is not that something like recursion is difficult to understand but rather the dissonance that the proliferation of parentheses can cause when Jane Programmer scans a listing in an editor. Vacant stares and cognitive overload ensues.

Marc Andreessen will be remembered for many things; amongst others: Mosaic, Netscape, the AOL merger, a little dotcom hubris some might say, but simply youthful exuberance I would say, evidence in the flesh of what a monopoly like Microsoft can do when provoked, and a pointer, along with Jim Clark, to the role of gravity in deflating bubbles ala Great Crash). Historians will point to all that and more.

For me though, his choice of the syntax for the image is his most lasting contribution to technology and to mankind in general. Others argued otherwise at the time and would have foisted semantic doodles on us. The "View Source" impulse that has led directly to the success of the web, that great conversational engine, would have been stymied by much head-scratching by the eveyrday people who created many a homepage circa 1995-1999. Those much mocked homepages were wonderful assertions of identity, and the lowered barriers to entry enabled many people to land their flag on this here internet where they, their friends, parents and children now live, shop and commune. If he ever receives an honourary knighthood from King Charles, his coat of arms should read

<a href="">Mozilla Hyperlink Andresson</a>
It is the succint expression of the ethos of simplicity in human history.

In this vein, I was perplexed that in XPath 1.0, it is better, or rather less ambiguous, to write true() rather than true. In other words, it is recommended or even required that we treat booleans as functions and not as literals. Indeed everything is a function and as we know functions need parentheses to indicate their arguments. This always trips me up and maybe this is no longer the case in XPath 2.0. Who knows? I certainly haven't cared to look. What is true is that the cognitive impedance this caused me on my first date with the language will forever taint it in my eyes even though I have daily dealings with it.

If you had to say huh? when you did your first view source of a web page, would you have gone with that newfangled web thing or would you have written it off as one of those overly complicated buzzwords that you would look at later "when you had more time"? First impressions and snap judgments (ala Blink) count surprisingly much in these things.

One of the things that I keep thinking we need, and that I hope someone with an itch will build, is a nice XPath expression editor, a component that parses XPath and walks you through the processes of adding conditions and formulating expressions. Maybe a wizard or something, with selectors for picking the various kinds of things that are typical when building forms applications e.g. this field should be less than the value from this other field. A component that would let you add a library of custom XPath functions that could implement additional rules. Each of these libraries would be able to specify their editors but most could just be simple drop-down lists. It's not a big thing to do and you can sketch out a nice design for such a component and knock it out over a weekend. Make it open source it and be done with it.

Still, my focusing on the critical necessity of such a component is simply a recognition that hand-authoring XPath can quickly turn into a nightmare of missed parentheses, predicates and selectors. It is true that authoring in XPath doesn't require as much head scratching as say XSLT, in which context I first encountered the language, and which mere mortals like me will never understand even as I used to write in Lisp. But it is something that raises the bar quite high for the average author. In contrast there is something strangely satisfying about editing a style sheet (or maybe it's just that I've grown accustomed to that over the years). Something like this I expect is what lies behind the impulse for Web Forms 2.0, and the WHATWG, a pragmatism borne of weighing programmers' familiarity with scripting languages and a tenacious devotion to backward compatibility.

More generally though, the issue is that getting general users to author structured content is a big problem, indeed it is a nigh insoluble issue. And all the software that we produce cares very much about structure. The wonder of the spread of HTML and XML is that, ever since Berners-Lee, Bray and others unleashed their projects on us, human beings have adapted to angle brackets, < >, and now don't see them as much ado about anything. The same thing goes with CSS, the tradeoff that was made for syntax is now bearing fruits.

In the past, I've had to deal with writing a number of applications that have had things like 60,000 lines of Javascript. The messy reality is that of dealing with things like focus, issues of scope in browsers, the power and contradictory complications of late-binding scripting languages, the earlier lack of powerful debuggers and Dom inspectors, the legacy of box-model quirks as well as the powerful notion of stitching together user interfaces by leveraging the incremental rendering and multi-threaded downloading that is the basis for the hypermedia browser. All this can be done, you can have even page editors and rich spreadsheet and presentation engines in Javascript. I've written about the heroism of those who write and maintain such things. Google (Suggest, Gmail, Maps and more), Yahoo/Oddpost, IBM, and many others have competitive edges because they have developers with the skillset and more importantly the insane programming discipline required to crank out the composable browser voodoo that causes much serendipity for end users. What however about the Long Tail of Application Authoring on the web? That's what VB and other environments have catered to on desktop clients. The endpoint in all of this is when a team lead or department head can compose an application for their local concerns without much (or preferably without any) handholding from the IT departments, if indeed they have one. People just want to be able to handle their little processes and get on with things. This is what web publishing and especially blogs and wikis have done by lowering the bar for authoring with the attendant benefits in communication and global conversation.

Thus, one of the main questions that will determine the adoption (or lack thereof) of XForms or Web Forms and their ilk is the perplexing matter of whether human beings in the next decade will become as inured to writing true() in an expression as they have become with the angle brackets of html and xml. Put a different way, it could well be something completely orthoganal to the merits of the underlying technology that will determine the outcome: it will be the appearance of the kind of code you see when you do View Source on the first cool forms application you encounter. I'm suggesting then that the language acquisition cost and what I'm terming the cognitive impedance in the average human being of parentheses for functions, and forward slashes for selectors will determine the adoption rates of XForms technology.

I've been working on Forms, and XForms in particular, for the past couple of years. I happen to think that XForms has gotten the abstraction and decompostion right and that it is a great means for lowering the skillset required to model and author the kind of form-based applications that are the glue of the many custom processes of the Long Tail of Software. Indeed my only nitpick is that the specification doesn't include upfront the equivalent of the JavaScript confirm function as a concession to usablity so that you can easily put up a message for the user so that they can decide whether they "are really sure that they want to submit their form" or not. It can be done, I've been told, but it isn't emblazoned in the specification. By being too general (they'd argue that something like this needs to consider mutiple modalities and the like), they are missing out on something interaction designers would immediately point at as a shortcoming. Again, first impressions count.

I see a bright future in which that much maligned Forms "programming model" that is at the core of the Lotus Notes platform could be brought to the web platform leveraging the native primitives of the Web style (hypermedia, uris, linking etc). XForms is singularly well suited to do this. For those unfamiliar with Notes/Domino, my handwaving elevator pitch is that it is a platform essentially founded on the fundamental insight that a huge class of applications can be built based on just a few compositional building blocks: Forms, Views a standard file format, the note in Notes terms. The brouhahas made about messaging, security, directory services, and all that paraphernalia that marketing people throw about when they pitch the platform to you are all syntactic sugar around the core competency of Forms and Views and the client and server processes that can manage them. A whole cottage industry of business partners are doing very fine thank you building custom and evolvable applications for businesses, small and large, everywhere. The fact that email can be construed as a forms application is just a side benefit and detracts from the real focus of the platform. This is much misunderstood by people whose only encounter with Notes is as a Mail client. It's really just a forms and view app for people and processes. Incidentally this same platform is most likely what is funding my current work and much of the IBM Software Group, even as resources are spent on other "sanctioned" and more "strategic" approaches. C'est la vie.

One thing I've noticed is that many people seem to want to ignore the lessons learned from the Notes world over the past 15 years and and behave as if the forms space is terra incognita - a brave new world indeed. On the contrary, the Forms problem and the wider Process problem is nothing new. These are things that have been with us almost from the time that societies became organized and larger communities formed as Barry Briggs has pointed out. Whenever I plumb those depths however, I am reminded of the notion that Joel Spolksy so eloquently coined that in software it it easier to write code than to read code. In software terms, 15 years is an eternity hence we are fated to reinvent and rewrite anew old software. Just look as WS-* as opposed to Corba. Sometimes I almost despair at this notion, since it bespeaks a total lack of curiousity and historical memory even with those who are sitting in the same building who have learned comprehensive lessons about the many problems of forms: evolvable schemas, metadata, annotations and the like.

Of course I'll continue to build the tools, the processors, the renderers and the infrastructure plumbing to make the forms dream an easier reality. I'd still argue that adoption will ultimately come down to whether the View Source impulse can be leveraged and whether the average Joe will get turned off by things like true() instead of true. If I were inclined to be a research type, I'd imagine a case study or paper titled something like
"The Importance Of Syntax In Technology Adoption - Historical Insights From The Trenches 1940-2005"
A more prescient Historian of Science would note that the issue of notation in mathematics is similarly a longstanding area of concern. A linguist would add insights about how different societies adapted different writing systems and the impact on the writing system on cognition and development. Anthropologists, sociologists or psychologists would have much to say in this vein.

Technologies like XSLT and XForms which are the prime users of XPath are in still in their infancy (as are some of the other takes on this problem space from Adobe and Microsoft). Despite having many implementations at its launch, XForms is still ambling towards its inflection point and I'd hazard that the majority of XForms templates and transactions are machine-generated. Fair enough perhaps. Wearing my prediction hat however, it will be very interesting to see what happens 6 months after the default installation of Firefox includes its XForms extension. We're going to see the same thing in microcosm now that Mozilla have announced that Firefox 1.1 will include SVG which has a more limited utility for mass audiences. With very little tongue in cheek, I'd wonder what contact with a massively vaster audience of form authors will do to XForms implementors. I'd lay bets on the first XForms engine that implements a "quirks mode" for their XPath evaluation engines to dealt with common patterns of mistakes in hand-authored forms. It will be a case of omitted parentheses rather than browser tag soup that will cause much fretting in mailing lists the world over. I wonder whether Peter-Paul Koch will then have to add an XForms or XPath section on his invaluable site that documents browser quirks. The litmus test will be the teenager doing a summer job in a lawyer's office who is asked to write a little forms application to help some workflow. If parentheses make their eyes glaze over, I doubt I'll be proved wrong (although I hope to be), about whether XForms would be used for that custom application. If the typical simplified wiki syntax (whatever Jotspot or SocialText are using) is more intuitive, that will be what gets used.

The other point Birbeck raises, and here the argument is much stronger, is about the tradeoffs that designers consider when it comes to seperating the processing, addressing, eventing and styling models. He speaks to an architectural truism whatever the domain in question. This is where his clarity of thought comes to light. A clarity that stems from being one of the exalted "Invited Experts" on the XForms and HTML W3C working groups, and having an innovative product that daily explores this landscape

If, for example, you started off in the mad, slapdash world that was early browser development, you might opt instead for a very pragmatic viewpoint on these issues. That's the kind of weighing that has characterized the Mozilla folks. Håkon Lie, Hixie of Opera, fall into this category even if they appear to take it to almost militant extremes at times. Still I see where they are coming from. Your take on these things is coloured by contact with the millions of end-user authors and the daily reality of tag soup.

I've only spoken with the Opera folks a couple of times and always forgot to ask them the burning question I have. How difficult is it, by the way, to add an XPath engine to a browser? I've always assumed that the real reason (as opposed to the stated reason, "we have everything we need in scripting and css") for Opera's almost visceral objection to XForms has been a concern over footprint since the same codebase is used on desktop and pervasive clients. But with the necessity of XML engines in browsers(with the now indispensable XMLHttpRequest) and Moore's law at work on your more limited clients, at what stage do protestatations about XPath (and hence XForms which is a dependency engine over and above XPath) become simply bywords for inertia? As a very conservative software engineer personally, I am similarly not inclined to jump on bandwagons just because they are in vogue. Still I'm interested in the architectural thinking that lies behind their position.

If, on the other hand, like Birbeck, you've drunk the XForms Kool-Aid, you'd be a generalist and will be inclined to see almost everything through rose-tinted glasses in terms of seperation of model from UI and from eventing and actions. You might recite MVC chapter-and-verse as you lull yourself to sleep at night, self-satisfied at your specification. The irony is that the visual effect of mere parentheses on an average teenager could cut short your sweet dreams of empire building.

Of course it's not always so cut and dry, sometimes you're just in the middle, trying to figure out which of the 45 latest buzzwords you're expected to spout fluently tomorrow to get a raise that beats inflation - or even a promotion. Or maybe you're just trying to code for food and get some real work done by helping a doctor's assistant keep track of HMO paperwork more efficiently or something of that sort. Oh well. Food for thought in any case.

Cross-posted at the Inside Lotus weblog.

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