Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Deadwood and the Web Application Leap

I came across the following script in my travels. Thought I'd share. The note scribbled on it was:

A spaghetti western in the technology world of the town of Deadwood, Wild West, USA.

Elevator Pitch

My previous Ananse folktales seemed to go down well with a certain audience as a kind of biblical, Grimm's tales of "African magic realism" as The Guvnor put it. At the risk of carrying that Autumn of the Patriarch conceit too far, I was reminded of westerns, of the spaghetti variety, when I came across the following insightful tidbit from Rands in Repose who you can imagine as Sergio Leone surveying the state of the current technology world and deciding to go local. It's not quite the masterpiece that was The Good The Bad & The Ugly which saw a great print released last year or the earlier and crueler For A Few Dollars More, it's rather that first shot across the bow of B-movie legend, A Fistful of Dollars. So without further ado as your novice director, let me sit back in my chair.
Lights. Camera. Action.
A Fistful of Dollars

Scene I: The Web Application Leap

[Voiceover by "Rands" as a wagon pulls into town]
The size of the fervent rush towards the Ajax reminds me that folks are dying to discover the Next Big Thing. It's been awhile since we've had a Netscape-magnitude holy shit and while there are have been many false positives... has any Internet technology in the past two years seriously knocked your socks off? Well, Ajax has not knocked my socks off, but I believe it's a indication of a revolution that will involve all of us... but understanding that revolution will take one leap of faith on your part... It's illuminating that the first stumbling block folks who are playing with Ajax are finding is that damned back button. At my prior gig, we had the same problem. We gave our users a complex web application that provided all sorts of cool filtering and sorting controls.... that could be instantly totally nuked by the back button... a shift reload.... you name it... ka-blooey, your state is gone. Ajax's doesn't care about the stateless nature of a web browser. Ajax just wants to quietly update your current page... and that's the second part of the first leap:

Stop thinking of a web application as a collection of pages.

The back button is not a bug in Ajax, it's a flaw in the browser metaphor.

I hearby serve notice to the following browser controls: forward, back, home, reload, and that URL field. You need to die... unless I need you. These controls are (rightfully) designed around the idea of the web as a collection of pages, but an application is collection of objects where you, the user, are guided by a well designed interface to get your job done. We don't actually need to kill these controls because they do serve a purpose, but the web application developer should be able to choose when they're available because the developer is designing the application and they are incented to do what's right for their users.

No. The perfect web application will never be a direct replacement for your favorite native application. The medium, the technology that is the Internet, will always change the content that it delivers, but web applications are still in the dark ages. Take a leap with me and think about web applications that do not compromise in user interface, that do not settle for interaction models designed around a clumsy metaphor. All the richness of the best desktop application belongs in web applications.... all you gotta do is want it.
wagon arrives in Deadwood

Scene II: Every Man For Himself

With this increased interactivity comes a few pitfalls and lets hope people don't go overboard. For the vast majority of applications it should be a case of adding unobtrusive javascript to enhance the experience (mostly to reduce latency). Things like in-place editing without page reloads are fair enough. We should think clearly about some of the additional things that are indeed possible in the user interface. As people start experimenting with the drag and drop and the enhanced user experience that Lotus K-station and various other applications were implementing 7 years ago, lets be judicious about what makes sense.

Let's not forget the basic principles of interaction design and mundane things like bookmarking, the back button and the other familiar landmarks our users have come to expect. That's not to say that the browser is the be-and-end-all of user interface design. As we "innovate" in this Brave New World, lets think about best practices from the Old Country and codify the design patterns both in terms of the coding that we actually come up with but crucially also in terms of the user interfaces we develop.

Scene III: Deadwood

We're seeking a Beverly Hills of web applications not a Deadwood Wild West of Windows applications each with their idiosyncratic notion of how things are done.

I love cursing, outlaw justice, bodice ripping pimps, prostitutes, con men, adventurers, opportunists, charlatans and all sorts of entrepreneurial adventurers as much as the next guy. Truth be told, it has pretty much been a Wild Web for the past decade. But lets not forget the downside:

  • the grim sloppiness and greyness of it all
  • the stench of human and other waste
  • the corrosive effect of smoke
  • the pervasive mud soiling everything in sight

Let's not forget the hard and brutish lives of those indentured to 19th century brothels, the brackish drinking water, the syphillis and smallpox, the rampant infant mortality and young mothers dying while giving birth to children. And then let's not mention the life expectancy in this environment and the Chinaman's pigs eating up the detritus of dead bodies as a convenient disposal method for the canny, vicious strongman who really runs the town. The Chinese saying goes "May you live in interesting times" and indeed in these times of retrenchment of IT budgets, deficits, crusades and Global Wars on something or other, these are interesting times...

Scene IV: Frontier Justice

While I loved the Wild Wide Web, I've mostly hated the monopoly-induced stagnation of the past 5 years. It was jarring and a blow to the great momentum and innovation that had been built up in the early days of the web. Now that last comment might seem like a cheap shot but remember that in the movie, Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name is treacherously playing off rival gangs of criminals and smugglers against each other like in Yojimbo so bear with me.

In any case, as Dare Obasanjo keeps reminding everyone these days the XMLHttp voodoo that is now being exalted was developed by Microsoft. And he has the right idea, Internet Explorer 5.0 was indeed the first browser to have a reasonably complete Dynamic HTML implementation where one could treat the browser as a dynamic surface that could be manipulated programmatically. Indeed Netscape and Opera didn't have monopolies on innovation and adopted lots of the great ideas from Microsofties who sat alongside them in the same W3C and IETF mailing lists where the constitutionnal council of the web was hashed out. And yes Dare, we really need to celebrate all the marshalls who were part of Buffalo Bill's posse.

Scene V: Calamity Jane

When I was developing K-station, I might have complained about the long nights I had to spend pondering the sometimes willfully idiosyncratic syntax in MSIE, the numerous undocumented quirks, the constant battles with focus, the inexplicable modal dialogs, the buggy scripting engine (what is it about scope and JScript by the way? what was wrong with calling it JavaScript? and why did everything need a setTimeout call to work robustly in IE 5.0) and don't get me started about the quirks in the Trident engine's implementation of CSS box model which has caused much head scratching and even is the focus of countless QuirksMode sites and Usenet groups. But with pickaxes, perspiration and youthful zeal to survive, having crossed oceans to escape Potato Famines, religious persecution or plain "invitations with shackles" for those unlucky to hail from Dark Continents, those of us who arrived in Deadwood were able to make do of things as we found them and actually build useful things in browsers.

Madman that I am, I tried to wrangle that beastly rodeo horse called Netscape 4.7 and almost lost my mind. I certainly broke a few bones in the process: it was a thoroughbred that couldn't be tamed. Thus the competition wasn't pretty and was even lacking in parts although they had advantages in areas other than programmability: faster rendering, multiple platforms beyond broken windows, better standards support etc. But lets be clear, once the Netscape/Sun/Novell/IBM threat was dealt with circa 1999/2000, development of Internet Explorer was plainly mothballed. It was only once the rewrite-from-scratch coal miners in the caves of Mozilla-land struck gold that we now hear about Internet Explorer 7 and that that new features will be coming in the browser which apparently can evolve seperately from the operating system.

Since I've always wanted the code that I write to work in my browser of choice, I continued to try to make our portal framework run in Mozilla-based browsers and was a frequent visitor to the Bugzilla bar-rooms in the hope that I would see progress. The Mozilla 0.7 milestone was the point at which I could say that we had a new sheriff in town; Calamity Jane no longer had to stand alone mourning Wild Bill Hickok. Certainly it was the first release in which one could see part of the K-station portal user interface show up. At that stage there were still things like an incomplete scroll model, lack of xml serialization and easy xml loading. But that lack was understandable, as Creationist Pilgrims that had read from the gospel of the W3C, the Mozilla folks would only take features that were inscribed therein. It took some convincing for them to implement items that were useful even if not New Testament material: Apocryphal books from the Latter-Day Church of Redmond.

Once the Mozilla M8 milestone arrived, the air had cleared and the new sheriff was beginning to assert himself. I was able to unleash the Mozilla support in the portal on scared product managers everywhere. People began to take notice and a little ripple of excitement run through everyone in the bar.

Scene VI: Winner Takes All

I recall a memo from someone about getting hardcore about the web in the hazy past. Was that a flashback or repressed memory? But I haven't seen a single CSS box model issue addressed in 5 years (I hope to be proved wrong in this summer's release). I've seen security updates and of late a pop-up blocker but did an asteroid hit all the browser developers in Redmond when Y2K came about? Did Lee Van Cleef ruthlessly deal with them in his ugly but efficent way? Or was it rather that a bunch of Apaches, led by Burt Lancaster, raided The Alamo?

Now all of the above was written with tongue firmly in cheek of course. I've read the "Don't Pick Fights" injunction in IBM's blogging guidelines. More to the point, I'm sure that if Netscape/AOL, Lotus/IBM, Apple, Sun, Adobe, Novell, Oracle or any of these other players had their way in the game of high stakes poker that is the technology world, their behaviour would be similar to what we have seen and often, when they have a winning streak going, that's what we do see. There are no good guys in A Fistful of Dollars, we're all empire-building cads fiddling with loaded dice.

poker game

Coda in the Commons

Unlike many, what interests me is not who wins the game, it's rather the commons in the village.

Via Kingsley Idehen, I was recently reading Brad Cox's prescient 1990 article:

Planning the Software Industrial Revolution
The possibility of a software industrial revolution, in which programmers stop coding everything from scratch and begin assembling applications from well-stocked catalogs of reusable software components, is an enduring dream that continues to elude our grasp. Although object-oriented programming has brought the software industrial revolution a step closer, common-sense organizational principles like reusability and interchangeability are still the exception rather than the rule.

According to the historian, Thomas Kuhn, science does not progress continuously, by gradually extending an established paradigm. It proceeds as a series of revolutionary upheavals[KUHN]. The discovery of unreconcilable shortcomings in an established paradigm produces a crisis that may lead to a revolution in which the established paradigm is overthrown and replaced.

The software crisis is such a crisis, and the software industrial revolution is such a revolution. The familiar process-centric paradigm of software engineering, where progress is measured by advancement of the software development process, entered the crisis stage 23 years ago when the term, software crisis, was first coined. The paradigm that may launch the Information Age is similar to the one that launched the Manufacturing Age 200 years ago. It is a product-centric paradigm in which progress is measured by the accretion of standard, interchangeable, reusable components, and only secondarily by advancing the processes used to build them.

Whereas mature engineering domains define standard products and allow diverse processes to be used in making them, in software we do the reverse, defining standard languages and methodologies from which standard components are to magically ensue.

That's the concise articulation of what those who designed the web were thinking about. This sentiment goes under many names (loose coupling, object oriented programming, service oriented architecture amongst others) my favourite embodiment is a certain architectural style but I believe that no one has a monopoly on insight into these things and indeed the marketplace will sort these things out.

The question is how do we get from the Deadwood of 1877 through the plain industrialization of Henry Ford's assembly line and the infrastructure build-out of the past century in the West to say modern day San Francisco or to the marvelous gleaming skyscrapers of Manhattan and the state of the art in Europe and the Eastern Tigers. I am hoping we don't need to go through Great Depressions and World Wars in order to step into the metaphorical 21st century of software.

The internet of course doesn't stand still and the web development world has routed around the various tree trunks that blocked the trail: just look at the new canvases that are being drawn and the GreaseMonkeys popping up everywhere. But maybe that is being a little naive, everyone ultimately has to pay the bills. Maybe we are all inward-looking criminals and smugglers despite our protesting our good intentions and adherance to standards. Who knows?

What I'm really looking for, and I think the ultimate users, those citizens of San Miguel, are looking for, is an escape from the Wild West. We're not Searching for John Wayne or like Morgan Freeman seeking Forgiveness for our partners, we don't want to Dance with Wolves like Kevin Costner (his last decent movie, remember what followed: the execrable Waterworld and that thing called The Postman?). At the risk of sounding like an anachronistic "Why can't we all get along?" Rodney King, a character that our man Clint would surely clown with a characteristically raised eyebrow, how about this:
Let's try to build a Wonderful World-Wide Web. Lets try to build it together.

Wild Wide Web Soundtrack

Essential tunes to this movie
I used to live downtown 129th street
Convent everything's upbeat
Parties ball in the park
Nothing but girls after dark
We chill nobody gets ill
In the place we call the hill
But if you try 'em
That's when they will
Get wild but they don't fight they kill
At the...

Wild Wild West (Repeat 4x)
How ya like me now

Credits (a chat transcript)

James M. Snell Mixing metaphors can be dangerous to your health ;-)
Koranteng ;-)
K    6 million ways to die: choose one
JMS    Death by Back Button?
K    the Bad Guys Always Wear Back
JMS    how Refreshing :-)
JMS    guess we can only move forward from here
K    absolutely... the quote for which I am most famous during my time on Freelance Graphics was
"Lets not give users enough rope for them to shoot themselves in the foot"
Mixing metaphors is my kind of thing
JMS    heh. it's not the users I'm worried about. it's all the darn developers
K    yep... and it comes down to frameworks and wikis and faqs and View Source ... and ultimately to Googlejuice: when Jane Programmer does a search they had better get good results otherwise they'll be hung high by their copy-pasted stuff
JMS    indeed

See also: The Unloved HTML Button and other Folktales

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Monday, May 23, 2005

On Recommendation Systems

Pete Lyons wonders about the voodoo behind Amazon's recommendations which of late seems to have nailed things for him as they successfully mine the Long Tail of music. He asks

Do they have more data now or better algorithms?
Sad fellow that I am, I actually happen to have read the research paper behind their approach recommendations - Item-to-Item Collaborative Filtering (PDF) which describes the techniques they used. The question then is how do these glue layer, machine-learning heuristic, and algorithm-eating artificial intelligence folks do recommendation systems and what should one make of them?

Now I'm no algorithm wonk, but my mathematics and electrical engineering hasn't atrophied enough to prevent me from recognizing the elegance of Amazon's technique. What's also interesting is that like Google Suggest, they make good use of offline processing so that almost everything can be pre-calculated and cached for reasons of scalability and speed.

As with almost all recommendation or machine learning systems, the more data they have the better things get. Of course the computation costs also increase but, if you can parallelize things a little, you can leverage the experience we now have of 10 years of Mr Moore in the Datacenter of the web and throw server farms at the problem. It's not just the data however, if you look at the mathematics, you'll see that the algorithm used plays the most crucial role much like PageRank or Kleinberg's earlier Clever (PDF, PS) did for search systems on the web as discussed here.

Music or book purchases on the whole are episodic unless you're someone like me who is obsessed and constantly looking for the perfect beat. Amazon as a retailer doesn't have to be worried about real-time timeliness; I'd guess their average user buys or browses through the site monthly, weekly or at a stretch perhaps once a day (e.g. outliers like myself who are always tweaking their wishlists). Amazon also gives users easy ways of providing feedback so that they can train the system at their leisure as they interact with the site. Like Netflix, they just have to throw in a little unobtrusive DOM scripting, hidden iframe or XMLHTTPRequest thingimijig and the user can click on those star rating systems without even seemingly reloading the page.

The benefits for the user are frictionless immediacy and the notion that one is teaching the autistic machine. The endpoint of machine learning is to perfectly anticipate human desires. Per contra I actually believe human psyches require a little imperfection. We need a little interaction and especially some conversation as we mediate our ever-changing world. In Apple's Knowledge Navigator 1988 concept, the interaction was more with a friend or butler. And as we know Jeeves was opinionated and mostly correct but he also made mistakes and Wooster could sometimes be smug. Should the people working on recommendation systems ever get to their nirvana, I would speculate that it would be a little unsatisfactory for the users, hence I'd suggest that they make sure to throw in enough errors (maybe a 5 percent threshold of randomness) to keep things exciting. I actually cherish the mistakes in my music collection and even the things Best Left Unread.

Enough people have been noting that Audioscrobbler's music recommendation system has improved enough that, late adopter that I am, I went ahead yesterday and installed their plugin on serveral of my machines. On the older machines, I use Winamp which has lower memory requirements than iTunes. My digital music collection (10,300 songs, 70.6 GB) is larger than the largest iPod so I am waiting for another Moore's Law inspired doubling of storage before I adopt that platform, not to mention that my ear canal is too small for those white earbuds.

Audioscrobbler's approach has the virtue of actually keeping track of your actual usage of the content in question so that if it notices that you keep playing James Carter's The Intimacy Of My Woman's Beautiful Eyes as I did last week, then perhaps it will be smart enough to figure out that you'll dig Nicholas Payton's Captain Crunch (Meets The Cereal Killer). At least that's the theory. Some fear that this smacks of Big Brotherism and indeed we need to be vigilant that the benefits we gain in giving up some of our privacy outweigh the possible pitfalls.

On the other hand, humans are social beasts and don't mind a certain amount of looking over one's shoulders or, like the teenagers on the bus, we don't mind others plugging in to our headphone jacks. Or like some of our neighbours, we want everyone in the neighbourhood to hear our sounds whatever they may be. There was some mp3 player or other I saw on Engadget a while back that had 2 headphone jacks to facilitate intimate sharing of tunes and that's the right idea. There's even controversy among iPod people over the new vocabulary: does podjacking mean "plugging your cord into the jack of another person's iPod (and vice versa, of course) to hear what that person is listening to" or is it "using an FM transmitter attachment to take over neighboring radios". Amazon's Listmania feature, our Netflix queues, the sharing of iTunes playlists, things like Webjay, Shoutcast, and All Consuming express the pent-up desire for the two-way web of publishing of content and interests.

If you love books or music as much I do, and write about them with incisiveness and opinion, others will always be asking you what the latest thing is in order that they can seek out new things (or know what to avoid) or simply share their opinions or anecdotes. These are cultural markers that help establish shared context. That is the role of DJs or the personal recommenders we all have, the people who are arbiters of the cool. And if the people who market these items seek out these tastemakers with the moral equivalent of payola, it's just smart advertising. Samuel Jackson will never buy a hat in his life again unless Kangol loses their corporate mind. In my own little way, long after I was active at WHRB, record companies were still sending me 12 inch singles even though my Technics turntables had been stolen and I'd asked repeatedly to be removed from their mailing lists.

Anyway here's Koranteng's Musical Toli at Audioscrobbler.

It's a little scary in that you could figure out that as I was writing these words Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers - Bustin' Loose was making my early morning brighter and you might even picture me getting up to take a few shuffle steps around my living room in my pajamas.

The Audioscrobbler recommendation system kicks in after 100 or so tracks played and I'll give them a couple of weeks or to see if it's hype and report back with the results. I too am looking for overlooked breakbeats.

Dan Bricklin's Listgarden is software in that mode. My current Forms work is all about lists, indeed until the lawyers heard about Microsoft List Builder, that was the preferred terminology for some. I actually would rather call a form a form, and a view a view but I'm a cantakerous sort as you might know.

In the web site link category where timeliness is of importance, the sheer scale and real-time nature of the blogosphere makes the design of efficient recommendations systems more problematic. I assume all the big boys are burning the midnight oil trying to crack that question. We want both search and recommendations to help navigate the web. Google has been very quiet of late although their Web Accelerator is pointing to the kind of thinking required. Just when you think that Blogger has been sadly neglected (no categories? no trackback? no easy lists or blogrolls etc) all those PhDs will surprise you. At least I hope they will - the contortions I've been going through with Blogger deserve a seperate post. I assume the same thing is true at Yahoo, MSN and the like. In the meantime, it has been Technorati,, PubSub, Blogdigger, Furl and BlogPulse for me (not to mention Blogdex, Popdex, Hot Links, Mememorandum and that latecomer Ice Rocket). Mark Fletcher has been intimating that Bloglines will surface something in the summer. If they do, they will have quite an advantage since so many are increasingly living in Bloglines and other newsreaders that Tim Bray is now pondering the usefulness of his Browser Market Share numbers.

Another Glue Layer Person, Leonard Richardson has one of the most interesting papers (and software that one can play with complete with Python source). He explicates the problem space quite clearly:

The Ultra Gleeper: A Recommendation Engine for Web Pages
Recommendation engines were built and run into troubles. Seemingly insurmountable problems emerged and the flame of hype moved elsewhere. Recommendation engines for web pages were not built or successfully launched. To even attempt one would require development of a web crawler and the associated resources. Today, recommendation engines have something of the reputation of a well-meaning relative who gives you gifts you often already have or don't quite want. Most useful recommendations come from knowledgeable friends or trusted web sites.

But over the years, as people built these web sites, they came up with models and tools for solving the basic problem of finding and tracking useful web sites. The wide adoption of these strategies has not only brought down the cost of building a web page recommendation engine, it's removed some of the insurmountable problems that still plague recommendation engines for other domains. It's now possible for someone with a dedicated server to run a recommendation system for themselves and their friends. I've done it and I'll show you how to do it.
An officious-looking "Legal Education" document came in through my Big Blue inbox in the past few days, so presumably I should consult that before peeking at the code if indeed that is allowed. The tension between the open source imperative and the inhibition of so-called "Intellectual Property" is a minefield that like all such battlegrounds causes stalls (and amputations); we still haven't learnt how to navigate easily these things.

David Hyatt recently wrote about Implementing CSS and gave pointers to the major lessons learned while implementing CSS support in Safari and Mozilla along with a couple of optimizations he came up with (very clever algorithms by the way) and the subsequent public discussion about the design and performance tradeoffs made in complex things like web browsers stimulated my engineering juices. Lots of things are browser-like these days and the techniques he has written about have wide applicability. A high performance dynamic style rule matching component could be used in many products that don't have to do with browsing. Instead I have to consult a lawyer or read yet another stack of incomprehensible powerpoint slides. Why exactly did my parents forbid me a law career? It seems that lawyers are the only ones who have guaranteed job security (trigger-happy disclaiming is the rule)

And while digressing about job security, I should mention that the news of 10,000 to 13,000 jobs being eliminated at IBM hasn't made for a comfortable work environment for the past few weeks. Those are mighty nice round numbers... Rumours are rampant in the workplace that as the Beeb suggest "it's too expensive to lay off in Europe, they have all those unions and are vaguely socialist therefore they're going to cut around here in the US where there is much less difficulty hiring or firing. Otto Von Bismarck knew a thing or two about paternalism and the unions in Europe even survived Maggie Thatcher's defenestration of Arthur Scargill. I know my family are all wondering what might happen and if I'll be affected and not just quietly, it's an ongoing concern in conversations. And who knows? We all worry about our own little patch of the woods but also about those colleages who we may not be talking to in coming months sometimes to the point of work being affected. Despite our undoubted professionalism, we're only human and don't understand abstract and capricious things like gravity or economics, we'd rather discuss tangible things like books, music and recommendation systems.

The two topics that never get spoken about in the US corporate world are one's actual salary and the impending job cuts. Everybody just keeps their heads down; the fear being that if you make too much noise, you might get the cut because admittedly we've all heard that such things have happened somewhere, somehow, at some time in some corporation. Corporations being the expression of unsentimental capitalism, I assume the worst part of being a manager is having to lay someone off and see their face. I'm too sensitive for that kind of thing and hence I'll never aspire to a managerial position. The one thing that you'll hear as the received wisdom-du-jour gets explained is that the euphemistic "resource action is not the fault of those affected" but rather "simply reactions to market conditions" or philosophically that ultimately it was a failure of planning or of something or other. But maybe I shouldn't stick my neck out any further...

In the spirit of the recommendation systems I've discussed I'll endeavour to share a few playlists with toli readers this week before London calls this weekend.

Soundtracks to this tale: See also: On The Long Tail of Music, Metrics and Recommendations

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Friday, May 20, 2005

The Roots + Floetry = Virtuosity

The Roots + Floetry = Virtuosity

The Roots and Floetry. Live at The Roxy, Boston. Wednesday May 18 2005

Intro * The Scene * The Vibe Y'All * Outro


I Shall... Proceed... And Continue... To Rock The Mic
Everybody Is A Star
"Go All Stars, Get Down For Y'all"
The 'Notic, The Hypnotic = Floetry, Floacism
All You Gotta Do Is Say Yes
Illadelph Halflife Meets Ill London Flow
Bring Some Money To Spend And Somebody To Lend And Some Worthwhile Money Not Some 20s And 10s
They're Coming To Break You Off
Duck Down
Don't Say Nuthin'
All Roads Lead To Apache
With Thought At Work, It's The Next Movement
I Don't Care As Long As The Bass Line's Thumping And The Drum Line's Banging Away
Kool Herc Ain't Never Seen A Royalty Check
Hip Hop You're The Love Of My Life
The Legendary Roots Crew Stay Cool In The Melting Pot
We Are The Ultimate (Rock-Rocking It)
That's What's Happening In The Parking Lot. That's What's Happening On Stage.
Din Da Da (Dun Do Do)
Do You Want More?
Somebody's Gotta Do It When The Guns Are Drawn
The Roots Come Alive
The Tipping Point Is Here And That's The Bottom Line
Give The Drummer Some
Keep the Beat Going
Bring The Beat Back. Bring The Beat Back.

Floetry - Floetic

The Roots - The Tipping Point

The Scene (Combat Zone)

You might sense a little exuberance, a little elation, a little plain joy in these parts and you'd be right. Wednesday night with The Roots and Floetry was even more reason to sport that wide smile that I've been bearing of late. It was a cheer that started in the long lines that stretched out for 2 blocks outside The Roxy. In downtown Boston, the Theatre District is very close to what is lovingly called the Combat Zone. Indeed during my first visit to Chinatown in 1991, there were gunshots and people scrambling as we walked out of the Boylston T Stop (200 metres from The Roxy) to try to get some Dim Sum. Most Harvard students tend to stay in Cambridge which has pretty much everything they need thus each excursion to Boston and its environs is an event. With guns drawn, that outing certainly fitted the bill;it was a great Sunday brunch by the way, baptism by fire as it were.

Now of course the city has cleaned things up since then. There was a concerted effort in this liberal bastion to husband the commons in a kinder, gentler mode than Rudy MussoGiuliani in New York. In the black community at least, the churches got everyone together and knocked heads around. There was one incident that was the last straw the community could bear in 1992 when teenage gang members came guns drawn chasing people into Morning Star Baptist Church and stabbed a kid during a funeral service for a teenager who himself had been killed in a drive-by shooting days earlier. Pastors and Samaritans everywhere started hitting the streets and patiently mentoring youths and forming a Ten Point Coalition that hasn't let ever since. With the Big Dig Irish/Italian/Federal/Mafia money to spread around for the past 15 years, a little dotcom boom and bust, the current biotech splurging, and a set of savvy universities around Boston with their 300,000 students in mind, it appeared that lots of things could go well for the community and economy. The notion was that it would pay for government and even Big Government to actually to manage the cultural and economic zeitgeist so that social ties were woven together and one wouldn't end up like the anomic New Haven, to take an example of what social neglect can do.

So now there are fewer porno emporiums or theaters in the Combat Zone. Whoever had the inspired idea of placing the Registry of Motor Vehicles next to that sordid theatre knew very well the power of shame in human affairs. Thus there has been considerable gentrification throughout the city of Boston and Developers With Vision™ have tried to clean things up. There are lots of gleaming and spiffy new buildings around, including the fancy Loews Theater at Boston Common outside of which the Star Wars tribe had camped out to buy tickets at the stroke of midnight for this Friday's Sith-like Revenge on office productivity everywhere.

However the move up-market was done in typical liberal fashion, with much hand-wringing about gaining community consent and buy-in from those affected. This is why there is the occasional attraction for strong men and fascism, they make the trains run on time. Ghana, like Chile before us, could only be a poster child of the IMF and World Bank in the late 80s because it was ruled by vicious rogues who could run roughshod over the wishes of their populace. Things are not so easy when you have a case of the episodic ballot box. Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt's "He's our sonofabitch" theory of the Realpolitik of "vital interests" and the recurring marriages of convenience with noxious strongmen and Strange Bedfellows are played out in such a grisly fashion in Uzbekistan and other countries even today.

With no dictator in place to press the issue, there is still a significant minority of people around Boston and Cambridge who haven't heard the word about the clean up program. Thus as you head for the opera or some fancy show, dressed in your finest tuxedo or shimmering dresses (Swan Lake was playing at the Boston Ballet which I must see at some point), you'll pass the 7-Eleven at the corner of Tremont and Kneeland and see a few (shockingly young) hookers and their rough but effete pimps, most just a few years older, casting a wary eye and assessing the likelihood of your disbursing cash money for The Game all the while speaking a patois full of puns, coinages and ghetto witticisms. Some of us were harried after long days at work or the minutiae of dissertation completion and were dressed down hence we glossed over these gritty urban fixtures. Our thoughts were all about the Sound of Philly and perhaps Brixton or Deptford.

Others however had seen a late addition on the Ticketmaster web site about a purported dress code, "No Jeans, No SNEAKERS, or Athletic Wear", which I suspect caused much gnashing of teeth and wardrobe deliberation. The notion that a low rent joint like The Roxy was ever going to enforce a dress code on an $18 ticket to a hip-hop show was hilarious to me, but I suppose others took this seriously because I saw a fair number of people dressed up as if this were one of the summer concerts along the waterfront, or the adjacent Boston Ballet for that matter, instead of a hip-hop soul lovefest. People wearing uncomfortable shoes, plus a late start - 10:30pm on a Wednesday night, might cast a shadow on some of the enjoyment.

One thing to note is that this one-off concert was sponsored by a cigarette company and there was a certain dissonance in seeing Surgeon General's warnings on the video screens above the stage right after a stream of "Kool" images (tagline: Be True and A New Jazz Philosophy) floated past repeatedly. Just in the past year, Angie Stone was sipping on Remy Red and Jill Scott's tour was sponsored by Alizé. I suppose the floodgates opened when KRS-One did the Sprite tv commercial to the sound of The Revolution Will Not be Televised. Gil Scott Heron must not own his masters. Ironies abound when companies in the guilty pleasure industries pick up all the "progressive" artists; one wonders a little about artistic integrity but maybe it's a matter of holding your nose and paying the bills (dollar, dollar bill y'all). Who else is going to sponsor the next movement?

Left-of-center artists like The Roots have a very diverse audience, they are musicians' musicians, and hip-hop's favourite jam band thus the crowd was a kind of Rainbow Coalition of neo-soul and hip-hop aficionados, the kind of people portrayed in candy like Brown Sugar. The addition of Floetry brought out a few more older African-American women to the table, intellectual poetry with harmonies, wit and the kind of groove that gave Michael Jackson Butterflies. Everyone looked good and expectant and harassed college students could escape their fears about the courses they had neglected all semester before buckling down for finals. This was the place to be if you weren't a George Lucas addict.

The Vibe Y'all

If you walked in to a joint to the booming sounds of A Tribe Called Quest's Electric Relaxation, you would know that everything was going to be all right. Like Earth Wind and Fire singing Keep Your Head to the Sky and Devotion live, it felt like a revival meeting so "Clap your hands this evening. Say it's all right. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah."

With 'that dude from Living Colour' guesting on guitar (I turns out that it was Vernon Reid and not "The Other Guy"), this was a performance that sometimes verged on the rock side of things. Well as rocked out as a hip-hop sensibility allows and with the good Captain Kirk Douglas also doing a mean Hendrix or more accurately a Kravitz impression, the rock and soul meshed well in the flow of things. The band always pay homage to the greats with snippets of the obscure breaks thrown in every now and then and this time it was Ray Charles' What I'd Say that did the trick.

Coincidentally this past weekend I had been in New York and passed by my favourite crate digging place Rock and Soul on 35th and 7th and, if I hadn't had a train to catch, would have spent a good couple of hundred bucks on essential breakbreats.

In any case the musical territory covered was hip-hop, rock, soul (with a very soulful new backing singer who's just joined them and not mere eye candy too, she can sign), lilting reggae to straighten things out. Black Thought is completely in control of things these days and now that he no longer hoards up his charisma or turns his back from the audience, the love is plainly reciprocated. The way he started with the pyrotecnics of Web, that one verse drum-and-bass, old school raw adrenaline was astounding and there was no let up. The humour and verbal dexterity (the breath control) is about about as good as it gets, I'm reminded of Big Daddy Kane or Kool Moe Dee going to work on things but with a millennial flow. Kamal at times introduced jazz and classical keyboard breaks, he's still hip-hop's Ahmad Jamal and towards the end gifted us with an amazing church keyboard solo that hit the spot. Hub's styles himself as a cross between Michael Henderson who made Miles Davis simply Live/Evil when he pushed him to slickaphonics and foot-foolery in the early 70s and Miko Weaver who, along with Eric Leeds, pushed His Royal Badness into the zone.

Miles Davis Live Evil

Miles Davis Live At Philharmonic Hall

And the drummers you ask? Frankie Knuckles on percussion, in empathy with ?uestlove's mission, adding great effects especially when they tilted towards reggae, soul and funk.

Questlove on the drums is simply scary and deserves his own paragraph. The frenetic and phonetic Brother Questlove is a perfectionist on his instrument, I now put him ahead of Kariem Riggins who got the nod last year because of his regular jazz moonlighting. Having listened to the Grover Washington-influenced Philadelphia Experiment, and heard the swinging I Am Music from Common's Electric Circus of which he was the executive producer, I knew he could do jazz and now with the kind of live performance that leaves you awestruck, there was simply too much talent to consider.

There was a point when it felt like that moment in the Sign O' The Times concert during It's Gonna be a Beautiful Night, right after the band has worked out on the Detroit Crawl when Prince says "Night Train" and the band switches on the dime and Duke Ellington's chorus blares from the horn section fitting perfectly and dazzling the audience. Or when James Brown was In a Jungle Groove for those magical 4 years starting in 1969, or even the point in Curtis Live during (Don't Worry) If There's Hell Below We're All Gonna Go when Brother Curtis sings
Cat Calling, Love Balling
Fussing And Cussing
Top Billing Now Is Killing
For Peace No One Is Willing
Kind Of Make You Get That Feeling
Everybody Smoke
Use The Pill And The Dope
Educated Fools
From-Uneducated Schools
Pimping People Is The Rule
Polluted Water In The Pool
And Nixon Talking About Don't Worry
He Says Don't Worry
But They Don't Know There Can Be No Show
And If There's A Hell Below We're All Gonna Go

Need I go on? At such moments, the music, audience and performers are in complete consonance. This is what I call virtuosity. This is life in a rarefied zone.

In last year's Toli Music Awards, I wrote
They've certainly hit a groove. It's like Prince circa 1986-7 when the Miles Davis horns came into his arrangements on the Parade. They've done the kiss-off album (Phrenology as Around the World in a Day) to throw off fairweather fans. They are now going for the vituousic and this works perfectly. Could a Sign O' The Times be in the offing next?

That was before hearing them on Giles Peterson and certainly before seeing them take it to the stage in the tradition of Funkadelic. I got my answer I believe.

Suffice to say that the kind of music I heard live last night has blown the band way past The Tipping Point they proclaimed was their due. The Roots are so confident in what they are doing these days that they make it appear effortless. The elated audience felt it too. Floetry who are so versatile were similarly inspired in their performance. They weren't blown off stage as almost anyone else who had to follow The Roots would be, but did their own thing and got a lot of love and plain respect. Their vibe is one of great invention, harmonizing, operatic and sensual with some London Yardie and garage inklings. It's a White Teeth meets a Brick Lane Sense and Sensibility. The thing about such musical intelligence is that at times it can be too dense and overwhelming but both bands kept the Boom Bap factor in mind so they "Rock(Ed) It To The Bang Bang Boogie Say Up Jumped The Boogie To The Rhythm Of The Boogie, The Beat"

The Roots closed out with a their usual 45 minute Hip Hop 101 tribute medley to those who have gone before them. They always choose different heroes to focus on and this time even went into more commercial club-banging territory (snippets of Biggie even turned up) intermixed with the exhilarating instrumental rare groove of Booker T and the MG's Melting Point that I pointed out earlier as the Jazz Funk in a Blanket of Soul.

Melting Pot


Since the DJ who warmed the club up was utter early nineties nostalgia, I'll close with this lyrical zinger from that same era, a golden era in retrospect, Chubb Rock's Yabadabadoo:
From The Rustler
Lyrical Hustler
The Fat Lady Sang
I Crushed Her.
Word Up The Chubbster
As we walked out at 2am to brave those denizens of the night who were still plying their trade in the combat zone, there was a little wistfulness about whether the car would still be there. It was hence highly appropriate that we were handed a couple of fliers for next weekend's Pimps and Hoes party.


Iceberg Slim's hoedown aesthetic is now a commonplace with Don "Magic" Juan, 50 Cent and Snoop literally pimping the cultural (and financial) zeitgeist. Thankfully people like the more reflective Ice-T have stepped off that program (and never would I have dreamt of writing a sentence containing the words reflective and Ice-T but that is a sign of the times). Perhaps one should see this as just a bit of fun, the ascendancy of a culture of irrepressible irreverence and reinvention, a kind of poking your thumb in the eye of those august New York Times types who now write editorials about how hip-hop lost its way. What these grey ladies don't understand is that that hip-hop is vibrant enough that Ludacris and De La Soul can coexist and even feed off each other without dissonance. Even if I were that way inclined, I'm off to London next weekend and anyway what would Malcolm and Martin think? The commercial road is certainly a heavily travelled path for instant gratification. The Roots and Floetry aesthetic simply shrugs of such concerns and tries to win you over with musical dexterity, one performance at a time, and it pays off I think. As the Black Sheep (who were also played during the warm up) put it, The Choice is Yours: "You can get with this or you can get with that". In my book, the tortoise does beat the hare in the end. I might take Richard Pryor over Bill Cosby but I still love both aspects of the culture. Mission: Music.

With a Philly groove still echoing in my ears, this was simply blasé blasé to me. I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Long Thief in the Night

The ever-insightful Brad Delong expounds thusly and deserves to be reproduced at length, my response follows:

Voodoo Economics | Thief Poetry | Alphabet St Blues

Our Twin Financial Puzzles: The Long Run May Come Like a Thief in the Night

The optimists--inside the administration and out--about the current financial situation have only one economic argument: long-term interest rates are relatively low, and are not pricing the dollar-collapse and the U.S.-interest-rates-spike scenarios as having any substantial probability at all.

The pessimists on Wall Street are puzzled at why this economic argument is supposed to have force. From their perspective, demand for long-duration dollar-denominated securities is high because the Asian central banks are buying as if there were no tomorrow in order to keep the value of their currencies down, the U.S. Treasury is borrowing short (it is not issuing that many long-duration securities), and U.S. companies are cautious and are not undertaking the kinds of investments that would lead them to issue lots of long-duration bonds.

We economists respond by saying that for every market mispricing there is an open profit opportunity: if long-term interest rates are indeed too low--if long-term bonds are indeed priced too high--there is money to be made by shorting long-term U.S. bonds, parking the money in some other investment vehicle that is not underpriced, waiting for bond prices to return to fundamentals, and then covering your short position. People will try to profit from trades like this, and in so doing they will push prices close to fundamentals today.

The long run in which the dollar falls and U.S. long-term interest rates rise may come like a thief in the night as a very sudden shock. If it comes as a sudden shock rather than as a long, slow, gradual realization, it will come on that day when the gestalt of the players on Wall Street and elsewhere changes, and when they collectively regard holding dollars as the more risky rather than the less risky strategy in the short run, when they collectivley regard being long long-term U.S. Treasuries as the more risky rather than the less risky strategy in the short run. On that day the long run future will be, as football coach George Allen used to say, now.

When will that day come? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year? On January 21, 2009? A decade from now? We macroeconomists who believe in financial market equilibrium have, today, a certain similarity to Millenniarists: our models of when The Day will dawn are not much better than the models of those who base theirs on a rule that transforms HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON into the number 666.

Thief Poetry

Right-on Brad.

You've spurred me to an admittedly meagre poetic contribution to the debate, my last poem was 16 years ago:

The Long Thief in the Night

Estate Tax writ large as Death Tax
Social Security painted as The Coming Crash
No need for Health Care or Medicare
War sans Galloway will prevent The Great Crash
It's Our Time!
Spend! Attack!
All hail them:
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

The only question is who will have the starring roles in this straight-to-VHS B-Movie (DVDs aren't an option). Is Greenspan the cook? Ken Lay's role is obvious but between Dubya, Cheney and the faceless, but very serious, wonks who are re-writing regulations and policies everwhere, who will round out the cast?

Alphabet St Blues

To the tune of Prince's Alphabet St
I'm Going Down 2 Alphabet Street
I'm Gonna Crown The First Girl That I Meet
I'm Gonna Talk So Sexy
She'll Want Me From My Head 2 My Feet

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
Yes She Will
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (Yeah)
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

I'm Gonna Drive My Daddy's Thunderbird (My Daddy's Thunderbird)
A White Rad Ride, '66 ('67) So Glam It's Absurd
I'm Gonna Put Her In The Back Seat
And Drive Her 2... Tennessee

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Tennessee
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Drive Her

Excuse Me, Baby
I Don't Mean 2 Be Rude
But I Guess Tonight I'm Just Not, I'm Just Not In The Mood
So If U Don't Mind (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)
I Would Like To... Watch

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah... Can I?
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (Can I, Can I, Can I, Can I)

We're Going Down, Down, Down,
If That's The Only Way
2 Make This Cruel, Cruel World
Hear What We've Got To Say
Put The Right Letters Together
"And Make A Better Day"


Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Better Days

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, It's O-O-K
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
If you use a file-sharing network, try to get the Alphabet Street Blues bootleg version, there's also a hilarious hillbilly country version if your tastes are that way inclined. I think that the blues version is a better soundtrack to our current economic predicament than the devastating dancefloor funk of the original version.

Lovesexy was a kind of spiritual rebirth for my favourite diminutive Minneapolis purpleness, a kind of metaphorical return to the Garden of Eden. He deliberately made the cd have only a single track so that you couldn't skip to the chicken grease snippets that you loved; he meant for the work to be considered as a whole. Artists get too self-important at times. It should be listened back to back with the Black Album which a fun party album but dark in it's own way, read Bob George and the threats to rappers, his managers and critics like Nelson George whom he hilariously shot verbal bullets at before his sociopathic persona killed himself before the undoubted hail of police bullets arrived, 41 shots to the dome but 10 years earlier. 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton has the best bass solo I've ever heard, it is also the most hyperactive instrumental jazz-funk I've had the pleasure of listening to.

Prince cancelled the Black Album in a little crisis of conscience just as it was about to be released making it one of the most bootlegged albums ever and recorded Lovesexy in just a few weeks. This was at the time that he was working with Miles Davis and so there are polyphonous horns all over the place and the funk is dense psychadelia, cacophonous and etherearal. George Clinton and Sly Stone were proud of what he came up with even if it was less danceable than say Erotic City (the best B-side ever). As a work, it echoed the recurrent motif of black music througout the years, namely the dichotomy between the church and the earthy jook joint, love and sex as the title track puts it. On the whole, this was a turn towards heaven and religion, Anna Stesia and I Wish U Heaven are all pointers to that rebirth. The repeated chant is "This is not music. This is a trip"


Still as with everything Prince does, it was all tongue-in-cheek, like the misunderstood naked title cover which damaged his prospects in the US market. Critics asked how could someone be so naive as to appear naked at a time when it was all about machismo and gangsta rap? Echoes of De La Soul in the Stakes is High video showing them doing laundry and rodeo-riding in a time of Bling Bling, guns and gold chains. But maybe that was the point.

The line about "Put the right letters together 'and make a better day'" was about clowning the rock star economics of the USA for Africa We Are The World effort from which the "make a better day" part was a literal quote.

Update: removed the Lovesexy photo. This is a family-friendly joint after all; wouldn't want to alarm Real Men.

Looking at the headlines, one wonders: Who has the single-tracked mind? Who has no clothes these days?
In any case, cultural critique at its best.

Slightly edited Blogcritic version.

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Monday, May 16, 2005

On Blogging at IBM

Fellow traveler, James Snell, points out IBM's newly published blogging guidelines and policies:

You can read them at length there, they seem fairly reasonable, even if couched in the obligatory corporate PR self-congratulatory bromides about "innovation-based companies". I wonder, are there any companies that claim to be anti-innovation?


IBM blogging policy and guidelines

Responsible Engagement in Innovation and Dialogue
  1. Know and follow IBM's Business Conduct Guidelines.
  2. Blogs, wikis and other forms of online discourse are individual interactions, not corporate communications. IBMers are personally responsible for their posts. Be mindful that what you write will be public for a long time -- protect your privacy. [snip]
Use your best judgment... Ultimately, however, you have sole responsibility for what you choose to post to your blog.

Don't forget your day job. You should make sure that blogging does not interfere with your job or commitments to customers.
The day job injunction is one about focus. When it comes to Freedom of Expression, companies know that they can't control what someone does on their own time and indeed that it can make the workplace a happier one if employees can pursue their muses. My own management chain have worried periodically about my focus. It hasn't been much use telling them that the Technology toli is actually my attempt to gain ideas that feed back into the day job or indeed that I've been blogging about Forms Glue of late. Or even that my education has been all about learning to handle balance and coping with daily insanity of which there is much in large bureacracies. Some just look at the blog and get scared by the veritable outpourings in this land. "How can he possibly write all this they must be asking?" Well I do have weekends, mornings and nights, right? At least I hope I do... Of late the 5am to 7am shift while drinking tea, reading the news and enjoying the early morning sun has been very productive and prolific. Thus at best they can only give a gentle reminder, day job doesn't even get a number in the guidelines.

The good news is that I have only pressed against the spirit of a couple of these guidelines. The one about "Clients, partners or suppliers should not be cited or obviously referenced without their approval" in particular.

And for these I would invoke the "Use your best judgement" plank as a justification.

I like to link. Like the hyphen, the hyperlink is promiscuous, sociable and an assertion of interest. Hyperlinking is the singular power of the web style; a link shares the googlejuice around and often shows that a human has made a judgment. The judgment is value neutral and doesn't imply anything other than interest (or sometimes dissent). The controversies over linking, deep-linking will continue to be fought until this is more widely understood. Links also get spammed but that's another story. A shout out to The Power of the Schwartz or to Sun & Sun (a frequent victim of The Ampersand Curse) is just that: a shout out. I certainly am not going to seek approval to link to these fine folks.

And as far as picking fights goes, it often isn't the wisest thing but sometimes it serves to clear the air (see On The Importance of Biting Satire for example). I've noted:
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.
Less said on that however.

I would say a similar thing about the "Use a disclaimer" item. This is a weasely concession by overly freaked-out folks to keep lawyers employed. I do recognize that the things I cross-post at the official Inside Lotus blog should have a different tenor, coming as they do from company hosted facilities and presumably, in that respect, I am acting as the public face of Lotus. Thus I take a greater care with my words in the toli that surfaces on that forum.

On the other hand, I think it is obvious that an individual doesn't speak for a company.

In legal terms, and as the son of a lawyer, I can confidently say that a disclaimer adds no value or protection whatsoever. If someone objects to your blog post, website or email, and if they have deep pockets (say the Scientologists for example), they can, and will sue willy-nilly and tie you up in court, protestations of disclaimer notwithstanding. The wonder of the lawyer lobby is that it manages to keep risk aversion and litigation at such a high pitch in the cultural zeitgeist. It is true that oftentimes, the market will tar you with the brush of guilt by association; in economic terms therefore it is wise for companies to worry about such things. But a certain humanity is often lost by blandly avoiding controversy. There are many a company with Strange Bedfellows all over the world (whether it is in the pursuit of oil, gold or blood diamonds, paying bribes to people while later tarring said countries with the brush of corruption. It takes two to do the corruption tango.

combating corruption

If you really did believe (as for example many executives did in the apartheid era) that it was imperative to share in the fruits of the sweat and tears of others - sanctions be damned! like Reagan and Thatcher maintained) then one should indeed expect swift retribution from the marketplace if appropriately sensitized. I remember Barclays Bank paying a heavy price in the 1980s for such an attitude (and it is only 19 years later that they are emboldened to return to South Africa). I can think of many such examples and perhaps you could point me to your favourites e.g. watching a nice liberal mother explain to her 4 year old son why the Del Monte can of peaches from South Africa had to be put back on the shelf and the Waitrose brand peaches (without the colourful logo) substituted, circa 1988 in Brent Cross shopping centre in London.

Now employee blogging is much the same as employee use of any technology, be it phone, email or the web. Oftentimes, the use of said technology can be very productive and useful (in moderation) and indeed it can sometimes save lots of time and keep the employee focused on corporate business. If I'm able to arrange renewal of my license over the phone or the web during my lunch break, I presumably wouldn't have to take an afternoon off work to head to the DMV. I recently joked in passing about how I had to respond to an anonymous email from some department or other to justify maintaining my office phone since it had seen relatively little activity in this era of instant messaging and email. It is incidents like that that lead people to talk all too often about "faceless corporations". That legal fiction of personhood is frequently invoked by companies but often conveniently forgotten when the lights go out.

American society is deeply litigious and gets stuck on the notion of explicit adherance to the letter of the law as opposed to the European notion of staying within the spirit of the law and letting an experienced judiciary adjudicate when the boundaries are overstepped. This means that there is a vast industry of tax and accountancy lawyers who specialize in weaseling out of the letter of the law with new tax shelter products every year engaged in an arms race with the IRS.

In this vein I would suggest that if Lotus was Old Europe, that IBM is heartland America, a New World of slightly puritanical rectitude. Coming from a culture that is often reacting to the fights between these two elephants, I would say that each approach has its merits and that perhaps the grass should have some say in these things.

Sometimes of course, this excessive concern for litigation has benefits for society, for the greater good as it were. Cambridge sidewalks tend to get cleared fairly quickly when it snows since people who twist their ankles and fall in front of your house will get their 50 cents and more in legal revenge. In comparison, English and French sidewalks were treacherous in the winter time - it often felt like a tightrope or walking the plank (in my tradition of metaphorical excess). There is also huge innovation in the kinds of cups that are used for coffee to prevent litigation-induced scalding. I don't drink coffee but I am amazed at what I see people holding when they walk out of Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. It's Nuclear Star Wars leading to good old Teflon all over again.

The 401K account, which is about the only thing other than the plain providential, and literal, lottery, that Americans will have for retirement if Dubya and Cheney have their way with Social Security - what with their continued focused and highly selective war-mongering, and deficit spending like proverbial Palm Wine Drinkards, is just a case in point about this phenomenon. A lawyer took a look at the tax code, found a loophole and now every dinner table conversation is about the 401K. Following up on the same idea, it is plain fact that the Roth IRA is the most popular political and economic innovation of the past decade. Bless you Senator Roth, wherever you are, you citizen you.

Palm Wine Drinkards

On the other hand this is the same tendency that leads to much inhibition. The US has half of the world's supply of lawyers and the world's largest insurance industry and for good reason. I shouldn't even mention the reinsurance industry and the whole stack of derivative products founded on this litigious risk mitigation tendancy.

Playground swings are no longer as fun since manufacturers have shortened the rope to prevent high velocity and now parents will strap you in like a pilot. Where is the thrill of youthful daredevil inventiveness going, I ask? My cousin famously broke his arm as a child on our playground swing and he is much the better for it. He became a far more sensitive soul once he had to be confined to a cast and realized his limitations and the wisdom of the repeated warnings of his parents and entire family. Actually it was the traditional healers of his father's village of Taviefe in the Volta region of Ghana who set his arm in place, armed with their inimitable herbs and centuries-old experience. We turned to tradition as opposed to modernity. A great respect for tradition and confidence in his roots was fostered in this experiece. Certainly in family lore we all know better where we come from.


I can't imagine my Auntie Grace filing a lawsuit against the swing manufacturer, or her sister in whose backyard the great swing was to be found, or perhaps even her nephew, me, who was in attendance at the fateful fall and who didn't intervene. That however is the degenerate kind of thing that would happen, and does happen fairly frequently in the US where the ties of family and societal culture are sometimes loosened into anomie.

There are already far too many emails emanating from corporate accounts with noxious disclaimers, clogging up mailing lists everywhere and causing comprehension problems. They are a public nuisance and there is no reason to add further disclaimers to the mix.

As you might have guessed, I dissent on that front, my Blogger profile simply says "Oh, and I work at Lotus/IBM". The Girlfriend Fiancée says that that tag line is "a little unprofessional" but it wasn't chosen without care. This joint is an individual one, this is a someone's voice you are hearing, engaging and thinking aloud in public conversation.

I think that suffices. What do you think?

Update: My friend Justin adds some Mediocre Indian Cuisine to the advertising mix. Join me in welcoming another jaundiced Lotus/IBMer to the blogosphere. He started the blog before these newfangled stamp of approval thingimijigs were published and we are all the better for it.

There is another post lurking about where and how people at IBM blog, but that's another conversation for another early morning, right Tessa?

Soundtrack for this tale: Brooklyn Zoo by ODB

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