Thursday, June 08, 2006

Boycott and The Gospel of Toli

I received a note that I almost discarded so slight was it. It was quite troubling at first glance and I reproduce it here in full; make of it what you will.

Part 3 of the Boycott Day Trinity

The Gospel of Toli

Recently scholars unearthed a scorched parchment underneath a library located in bowels of the slums of Nima, in Accra, Ghana. It was found by a young child, Wednesday born, who was playing football (also known as soccer to our American brethren). Barefoot and wearing a tattered Stephen Appiah-labeled Black Stars jersey and khaki shorts (he was skipping out of the library early), he stumbled over a wooden plank that was jutting out of the side of the adjacent chop bar, Mama Opus's Spot. At the sound of his alarming cries (something to do with nails or something), the elders were summoned to investigate the stigmatized youth and they uncovered a heavy wooden chest that led to a serpentine series of catacombs that run under the library and the nearby compound, owned by a wizened retiree who refused to give his name "What is a name after all?", but who, we have since learned, goes under the moniker of Kweku Ananse.

The paths delineated by these tunnels run along the Prime Meridian. It is well known that the line of the Greenwich Mean Time runs from fair London to the heart of darkness in Africa and passes through Nima, that dank armpit of the Dark Continent. Inscribed on the last page of the scrolls that were later discovered was a barely decipherable scrawl that handwriting experts now believe reads: The Gospel of Toli. After painstaking forensic investigations over the past 33 years, including the delicate removal of 6 films of Palm Wine, Schnapps-encrusted dust, and several layers of used kelewele oil, National Geographic is proud to exclusively announce the preliminary findings of this extraordinary and idiosyncratic document which will cause humanity to question its received wisdom. We intend to serialize the scholarly findings in the magazine.

Apparently negotiations are in progress and several Nollywood studios are leading the bidding for the inevitable film treatment. Samuel L. Jackson has been said to desire the role of Papa Ananse and that well known former child star Jamie Bell was also said to be seeking a role portraying the Messiah figure. It was unclear who the frontrunners were for the female leads, the Proud Marys of the plot although Tina Turner and Patti Labelle were whispered to be in the mix. Do note that any leaks on this topic in the so-called blogosphere should be treated as Gnostic misdirection.

The text of the Gospel hews quite closely to the Torah although there are some striking divergences in parts. The first discrepancy in this Apocryphal Gospel concerns Genesis Chapter 2 which has long been thought to read:
Thus the heavens and earth were finished, and all their multitude, And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done
Verse 2 has been radically transformed in this "extraordinary rendition" (termed for some reason in this arcane script: erustication). The verse now reads
Thus it was written that on the seventh day God grew so frustrated with things that she engaged in a boycott of all the work that she had to do.
The Good Pope, the erstwhile Cardinal Ratzinger, was said to be studying the issue closely, and his spokesman assured us that an encyclical would undoubtedly be forthcoming from the Holy Church.

Anonymous sources close to the papacy, who asked for anonymity because they wanted a Rove/Libby style protection, were quick to weigh in on the matter to our intrepid reporters.
"First of all, there's the issue of the gender of the deity. If the "s" is confirmed to not be an oily smudge, it would challenge 20 centuries of past practice, and cause us to re-examine the previously thoroughly-discredited Magdalene Propositions in a new light. Further, the notion of a boycott could be construed as an existential threat to the very authority of the Holy Church, a challenge on the order of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses. About the only constructive insight I can find in this tendentious note is that God still has work to do for humanity. Lastly, I am very curious about one of the hieroglyphic symbols that is used throughout the text. The best translation seems to be a biblical concept similar to modern day voice mail. That is deserving of further study and this is where we are concentrating our efforts".
The remainder of the chapter is reproduced exclusively below. Further epistles will be featured exclusively in National Geographic and accompanying DVD and official website.

The Boycott Parable

That's it. I'm opting out. I've had enough. How the hell am I going to remember this many passwords, changed this frequently, at these irregular, staggered and idiosyncratic intervals, with these many different, obscure and undocumented restrictions, with all these different regulations on how often one can repeat said passwords and usernames? Oh sure I can, and do, use Password Safe to manage these things but still, having reached 50 different passwords for the various applications and databases I use, I might be changing things every week...

And now this insanity is being applied to the voicemail systems, increasing the length of the passwords beyond comprehension. I'm supposed to type this absurdly long and ever-varying chain of alphanumeric characters on a numeric keypad? Usability right? It might have made sense on paper to "strengthen password requirements" but did someone actually try to enter that many characters on that small a device?

I give up.

The figures are there I'm sure; someone deep in the bowels of the corporation can calculate the amount of help desk incidents devoted to resetting passwords. Or maybe not, that could well be an outsourced component. In all likelihood this same recipe is cooked in all companies

The Regulation Twist

  • Apply some IT Corporate security standard or other. The actual standard doesn't matter, the most important component is the security bit.
  • Lather with some bureaucratic bromide from the ivory tower, "Operational execution" or similar
  • Rinse with an outsourcing and "efficiency" rationale, belt tightening "to beat this quarter's numbers".
  • Sit back and watch employees do the regulation twist.
I'm working on a toli remix to update the song and dance with a funk break beat; I never realized that the phrase and phenomenon of breakdancing was an ironic commentary on modernity and ludicrous "traditions".

The Great Game of Sarbanes-Oxley, Homeland Security or IRS regulatory arbitrage proceeds apace - a typically American corruption of process that leads to dysfunction, to sleaze at the seams, and absurdity in general.

I know I'm tilting at windmills here but I thought that we were about emphasizing the people while paying lip-service to the process. (Cheers Coté).


To all correspondents (and that includes my managers and co-workers), don't bother leaving me voice mail messages any longer. It's not worth it, I can only get my password reset so many times before I get disheartened. My job description didn't include daily chats with the help desk - at least I can't recall that in the pitch twelve years ago. I can hear it in the voices: "It's him again... let's take bets on how long until we speak to him". I can only be apologetic or suitably shamed so much and I've long passed that threshold of woe. I have some sense of honour, even if I'm always smiling and nodding my head... From now on try instant messaging or email or something. And even with this last I can occasionally find your signals amongst the noise of spam and officious notes. As I look at the inbox, I note:
"Your action required!"

"Your [redacted] password is about to expire"

"Your [redacted] security token will expire in 14 days"

"Important - Please read [redacted something or other in breathy tones] ...
Sidenote: I wonder why the inbox still stands at around 3,000 unread. Hmmm.

"They", that amorphous they, have finally made the barriers to entry too great and I'm demurring. I thought we were championing Sign-on Simplification in one of our Great Initiatives ™. That can't come soon enough.

I can pinpoint the moment Lotus stopped being Lotus. It was a gradual process and ironically "process" was the culprit. Was it the computer security requirements? Was it that "mandatory legal training" thing to which one needed to breathlessly comply "by tomorrow" (on top of the Business Conduct Guidelines we sign off on every year without fail)? Are we like the American army in Iraq, 3 years into a war and now having to undergo "values training" and re-education about "quaint" Geneva conventions? After a while all these processes became overbearing and I knew I was no longer in Kansas (or Cambridge) anymore. Oh sure I do get work done and I've installed those compliance-checking software thingimijigs (a.k.a. corporate-sanctioned viruses) on (one of) my machines. Still this whole Trusted Computing rhetoric sounds Orwellian...

That layer stripper Bill DeHora was going on recently about web frameworks, terraforming and such and the technical arteriosclerosis analogy is apt for organizational behaviour
It's remarkable that something like a website can have a geology, layer after layer of frozen accidents. Integrators will be used to seeing that in non-web systems. But the difficulty is you can't terraform this kind of site - reskinning means editing every single page.
We seem to be freezing processes in place as part of some intelligent design scheme, I'm hesitating here in believing that it is accidental evolution, it's rather a terraforming (or is it terrorizing?) of corporate peons. There must be a reason that that show called Office Space has been so popular or that Dilbert speaks so deftly to the world every morning.

In queuing theory and operations research one of the key things we try to measure is the balking rate, that is the proportion of users in a system who refuse to join the line or perform the task, and leave for whatever reason. In physics the analogous concept is branded as dark matter and apparently the majority of our universe is made up of this substance. It's been over a year and I still haven't finished writing that article on the dark matter of communities but it looks like I'm accumulating source material daily in my company conclaves. If you want us to use tools to get work done, don't make the process so overbearing that we balk. Or perhaps that's the strategy, as in politics, if you make things distasteful enough, perhaps you can appeal to apathy in your opponents and your motivated base will be the only ones that show up on election day.

Then again, and I repeat myself here, there was that email that I received a couple of years ago asking me to validate that I really did need my office phone (Bean Counting on a mission to Planet Absurdity). And while repeating myself, this is a matter of community dynamics:
The identity of a community is to be found in the most unlikely of things. The things that draw people together to form a cohesive whole are not the explicit things that one thinks, it's not a kind of warlike territoriality or dedication to some mission statement or other, it is rather in small insignificant items that the tribal instinct is articulated.
What are we saying to ourselves when we let patently-ridiculous processes run our lives, when we live in fear of an amorphous "them", when we huddle together and decide not to make waves.

Ben Hyde who makes it his business to study organizational politics and networks recently pointed to an old piece about Exit, Voice and Loyalty that is worth repeating
Members of an organization have three broad choices about how to respond when the organization goes into decline.
  • Exit - They can leave.
  • Voice - They can argue for change.
  • Loyalty - They can remain silent and loyal.
It would be a stretch to say that a company is in decline based on contortionist password requirements for voice mail and I hope I'll be taken to task for even indirectly suggesting as much (for the record, and for gospel readers who can't get by the rhetorical filter, I'm not suggesting so). Still what is it that they say about canaries and mineshafts?

Having read The Organization Man, I am mindful of leavening my dissenting voice with the necessary amount of honey or satire to make it go down well, and agitating for sanity by considered argument, running code, and the occasional call to arms. Still when you focus on small things as your strategy you often loose heart at the repeated losses in your daily battles. I do try to choose my battles with care and I hope this voice mail business isn't my last stand, last straw, or tipping point following Mr. Gladwell.

The Boycott Epistle

  • Elmore Leonard - Last Stand at Saber River

    Elmore Leonard - Last Stand at Saber River

    This is one of "Dutch"'s great westerns, taut, stark and poignant. Like the major protagonist, I just want to be left alone minding my flock and family or something and getting work done.

The Boycott Hymnal

  • Jerusalem (traditional)

    My second favourite hymn is Jerusalem with words by William Blake. My family is fairly secular in its religious traditions with an interesting mix of the devout and the dissolute. The one thing we have in common is a love of hymns. Even the Fabian Socialist types will sing along with the Presbyterians, the Anglicans (Episcopalian for the Americans), or even the normally sedate Quakers and part-time African traditionalists. It is quite interesting that Jerusalem unites us, especially given the lyrics.
    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England’s mountains green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

    And did the Countenance Divine
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    Among these dark Satanic Mills?
    In boarding school in England I had a friend, Adeel, from the United Arab Emirates, who used to chafe about being forced into our daily chapel services. He was becoming quite a devout Moslem and used to get into furious arguments with House Masters and such about his attendance. The Brits don't believe in separation of church and state and, in an independent school, we know well what force his words carried. We had fought similar battles to no avail but we watched the conversation with amusement over the two years we were classmates. It was always incongruous to me, that my Third World crew of friends would spend our days learning about the outrages committed against our ancestors in the colonial past and post-colonial present and that we would then gather every morning to sing about fair England and the like. Those missionaries got us with their hymns, psalms and that Song of Solomon business. As a sidenote: currently, one of the most popular ringtones in Ghana is the Hallelujah chorus.

    The funny thing is that both of us, Adeel and I, loved this hymn and we could often be found singing it aloud in the most inappropriate of places, sad fellows that we were, we lost a lot of credibility especially with the fairer sex... For some strange reason we loved the line about England's mountains green. I still do.

    I've been thinking seriously of late about this notion of pleasant pastures and perhaps I've been lucky to have found Lotus's equivalent in the community I've been working with over the past decade. On the other hand, blue industrial soot is looming large these days and reviving my childhood asthma... Still I take heart in Blake's protestant work ethic and existential defiance
    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England’s green and pleasant Land.
    I must want to build Jerusalem or something...

    The dark Satanic Mills are password requirements and version hell.
  • To Hunt the Wren

    This traditional was the other standby around Christmas time at Aldenham although this was more properly a Boxing Day song. As I remember it, the lyrics were
    Where are you going?
    To Hunt the Wren
    This Christmas morning
    Calls for hunting them

    How will you kill him?
    With sticks and stones
    Hatchets and cleavers
    Honouring his bones.
    It's quite a bloodthirsty song but, sweetly sung, it is as soothing as a Spanish Inquisition. And why not bushmeat or grasscutter, I always wondered, even as I sung Alan Vening's arrangement? When was the last time an African hunted a wren? Still I feel like a wren these days with these passwords being the hatchets and cleavers honouring my bones. Not to mention that the song didn't conclude on an upbeat note, the bit at the end was about
    Yea and Requiem
    Yea and so Amen
    All together now.
  • Michael Jackson - Man in the Mirror

    Keeping things on the gospel front with a soulful tinge, we turn to Mr. Jackson's great anthem, one of my favourite songs of his.
    I'm starting with that man in the mirror
    I'm asking him to make that change
    If you wanna make the world a better place
    Take a look at yourself and make that change.
    There was a performance at which he was so in the moment that he dropped to his feet dramatically during the energetic chorus and split his shins which meant that he couldn't do all the usual moves and limped during The Way You Make Me Feel which followed.

    With regards to my theme, it is sad that MJ changed his appearance and that I'm now boycotting my voice mail. I don't quite think that that was the underlying message of the song but perhaps the Corporate Song booklet could be augmented with this track, especially that "take a look at yourself and make that change" line.
  • Al B. Sure! - Had Enuff

    Have you had enuff? Swingbeat ebonics from the great Al B. With his exclamation point on the Sure! serving as a precursor in punctuation prolixity to Yahoo!, this is an offshoot of the irritation playlist.
  • Prince - Golden Parachute

    This song, on the unreleased High album, is the current soundtrack of my low life. I do wonder about the faceless executives who signed off on the changes to the voicemail password requirements. I wonder about the nature of their pastures. Are they still with us in the commons? Do they have assistants that handle their telephony arrangements? Or am I the only one struggling with this? Can I get a golden parachute to cushion my forthcoming fall?
  • Abide With Me by Henry Francis Lyte (traditional)

    My favourite hymn hands down is Abide With Me, it has everything you could ask for, the lyrics, the melody, the comfort provided by the performance etc. Thelonious Monk did a 55 second rendition at the start of Monk's Music and that was when I knew that I loved Mr. Sphere. On that album, it was followed up with Well, You Needn't and that's the right idea for a boycott especially the point at which the exuberant Monk shouts "Coltrane". The rest is history and Monk is the truth.

    Thelonious Monk - Monk Music

Today is Boycott Day in this joint and with this, the third part of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost can be assuaged. I suspect that I've gone on entirely too long and crave your indulgence if you've read this far. Thankfully the World Cup beckons so maybe I'll shut up about these small things (for the next month or so)... Perhaps...

So dear toli readers: can I get a witness? What are you boycotting these days? Or to put it differently, when was your last boycott day? And when is your next one?


The Boycott Day Trinity is a minor diversion in the Things Fall Apart series.

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