Thursday, July 13, 2006

World Cup Radio Toli

I tried to keep away, believe me... Last night, right after the movers departed with our possessions, I donned my Stephen Appiah shirt and headed to the WGBH studios to make an appearance on Radio Open Source to dispense some toli on the World Cup and sports as a leading indicator. You can download the podcast to listen if you care. It was my last Bostonian hurrah with Christopher Lydon, Chelsea Merz and crew, a show packed with both erudition and down home punditry. On the phone were Robert Lipsyte, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Patrick Belton and John Ralston Saul - cosmpolitans and sports lovers all.

Chris's pitch for the show was simple

What is this comprehensive "globalization" of sports stars, money, victory all about?

What is the story unfolding in this World Cup summer of empires falling and rising — empires of money and fashion as well as of national pride and prestige?

These were some notes I sent him over the weekend, my talking points, if you like, about possible directions for the topic: sports as leading indicator and sports as globalization off the top of my head.

On Sports as a Leading Indicator

You'd have to talk about the French team and its composition.

Zidane as the street gladiator. 17 of the 23 players are minorities. Cosmopolitans?

You'd also have to talk about how they are looked at by their countrymen... With love by most, but ambivalence or outright hostility by some (e.g. Jean Marie Le Pen).

You'd have to talk about the changing nature of the game and how everyone plays in Europe. The Brazilians have made almost one billion dollars selling their players to European teams. The Africans too, and these days many of the African teams were playing a very European game with only flashes of their previous freer flowing style.

What about identity and allegiances? I've pondered it recently.

Brazil, Argentina and Old Europe as the Great Powers; South Korea's showing in the last World Cup. Australia doing better than the US this time.

Rupert Murdoch built his empire on sports: Sky satellites... Fox Sports World and elsewhere as the expression of his parochial interests. The problem with the coverage: all highlights, all sensational, all superficial, all triumph over adversity, missing the subtext. Compare to Fox News.

Connect to the entirely ridiculous coverage by ESPN/ABC. Less said on that. I watched it all on Univision. This bit by Jeff Klein of the New York Times covers it all: The Sins of American Sportscasting.

Dana Blankenhorn too wrote about The Greatest Game Ever Played

Americans still have no clue about the World Cup, or of soccer in general.

The U.S. announcers are horrible. They talk about everything but the game in front of them. They repeat the back-story endlessly. They assume the ending and look two games ahead. They talk about other shows to be on the next day or the next week.

Tony Karon, whose coverage was excellent, had piped in earlier with How to Watch the World Cup.

I have a pretty good idea where Osama bin Laden will be on June 14 -- and June 19, and again on June 23. Not his exact location, but it's a safe bet he'll be in front of a TV tuned in to Saudi Arabia's World Cup soccer matches with, respectively, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Spain.

Sporting Blues

You'd have to talk about America's place in sports. Great Power? Things Fall Apart? Decline and Fall? I don't know but small things add up. You need some joie de vivre and the sports headlines should be providing comfort.

It was not a good 4th of July... No McEnroe, no Connors, no Agassi, no Sampras or Roddick, no Venus, no Serena, no Lindsay Davenport winning at Wimbledon. Instead a Swiss guy and a Spaniard are providing the excitement. And what about that tall Chinese woman who made the quarter finals and gave Clujsters the fits, Li Na? What about feet binding? The Chinese are coming...

Nathan's hot dog eating competition was won by Kobayashi again, a small Japanese guy out-ate red-blooded Americans. Hot dogs for God's sake.

If you watched the world cup on Independence Day you would have seen Italy against Germany (weren't they part of the original Axis of Evil back in the World War?).

The US team had been knocked out by Ghana, and it was the "Nigerian" player who bumped the guy and gave away the crucial penalty. Where is Ghana on the map again? And Ghana beat the Czechs, the number 2 team?

If you read the news, the front page of the New York Times showed a baby faced soldier in chains accused of rape and murder of a 15 year old girl and her family in Iraq, echoes of Abu Ghraib, erustication. He was wearing a black Johnny Cash shirt and looked vaguely gothic and troubled.

If you went to the movies you would have to make sure you didn't see An Inconvenient Truth, The Road to Guantanamo Bay or Army of Shadows as you got your Superman Returns tickets.

Things like that put a damper on the fireworks...

On the other hand, it is silly season, just a few bad apples. In other news, the Israelis are using American tanks to blow up Palestinian bridges and power stations...


You'd have to talk about Italy winning with deadly efficiency. You'd also have to mention the corruption back home in their football league.

Sports is big business, the global brand.

You'd have to talk about Fifa and the International Olympic Commision, bureaucracies created by English and Frenchmen but now totally their own thing. Who was that Spaniard at the IOC with his corrupt ways?

You could talk about how tribal identities are forged when you watch sports.

Sports bind the US more even than religion since there is that Church/State separation business.

The Germans started buying flags once again since their team did so well this time.

Gamesmanship: Portugal's diving cynicism and the head butts in the Netherlands match.

Togo and Cote d'Ivoire have been on the brink of a civil war but were quiescent for the past few months since their teams made it to the cup. What will the future bring?

In Ghana there is considerable nationalism now based on the way the team played. We came to win and did well. The nation fully expected that the cup would come back with the boys. Ghana flags are flying everywhere these days. Will this feeling be capitalized on in the economic sphere?

me Chris Lydon


Yannick Noah, the great French tennis player, was French when he won but was characteristically "of Cameroonian descent" when he lost. Similarly, the coverage of Zidane, and the urge to "understand" his actions, focuses on his Algerian immigrant upbringing. Wayne Rooney, who similarly lost his cool and shoved Ronaldo to be sent off must comes from the same immigrant school of hard knocks I suppose, as does Luis Figo whose head butt was unprovoked. Right?

Silvio Berlusconi's political career was supercharged by his ownership of a football club. How he would have loved to bask in the triumph of the Azzurris, the colour and slogan of his political party if he were still Prime Minister. Instead he was indicted for fraud days before the final.

I don't quite buy the argument that Americans only care about "their" sports (NFL, baseball, Nascar etc.) and will always remain indifferent to football and the World Cup. If there is one thing that America understands, it is attention and the impact of large numbers. Branding is the signal contribution America has made to the world. That is why there is a "World Series" in baseball even though much of the world doesn't play that game. Hence the excitement of a truly global game like football, one that literally is the lingua franca of the entire world, will permeate consciousness and attract participation. Soccer children will become the next generation's soccer moms and dads and will want to see their heroes make it on the global stage. Join the queue.

Wolves and Emperors

During the show, I tried to handwave a little about this notion of sports as a leading indicator, mixing my metaphors as is my custom, and I should explain what I was getting at. Poetically I started with the focus on small things like the current poor performance of the US in sports. Someone had brought up the Duke of Wellington in the conversation, but I rather harkened to The Boy Who Cried Wolf in that folktale as a leading indicator of perils that faced his community... To relate that to another folktale, the message in these leading indicators is often that The Emperor has no clothes. And I'd hazard that we are currently living in an imperial moment. The difference between the reception of the boy who cried wolf and the devastating impact of the boy who pointed out the emperor's hubris was that the words were said at a parade. Thus it is at social events or gatherings that we reflect on the zeitgeist and see things in their true light. Sporting events like our ceremonies and our public holidays are the grand events when communities come together. Politicians can't control the zeitgeist, nor can big businesses really control the human drama of sporting events. Still they can try, and I can recall Mr Bush delivering turkeys to the troops one recent Thanksgiving. I'm not so sure that there has been much comfort in this silly season of our discontent however. But perhaps one shouldn't make too much of these things.

In any case, head nods are due to my fellow panelists and to the Open Source crew who conjure up news feverishly every day, Chelsea, David, Brendan, Robin and the rest. The conversation continues apace.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Book of Toli

toli: n.1.A juicy piece of news. 2. The latest word or gossip. 3. The talk of the town, typically a salacious or risque tale of intrigue, corruption or foolishness. (Ga language, Ghana, West Africa)

I give you a guided tour to the first year and a half of toli. This is the material I would draw on if I had the time to fashion a novel out of my earlier musings on the blog (everything written before the appropriately titled Mind the Gap was fair game). I've tried to discern themes that were lurking in these writings to give an organizing principle to what were often cacophonous outpourings. As befits things written for an audience of one, these notes stand alone and can be read in any order. To date I've resisted the call for better organization of the blog and have been happy to let folks encounter the toli in their own way. This then is a gesture in the direction of friendliness of navigation (all those links on the right hand side were getting irritating).

The technology writings mostly constitute a separate collection, and I've been told to excise the music and literary pieces if I am actually serious about developing a good book proposal. On this last, I can't imagine my brand of toli without some consideration of art hence they remain firmly part of my elevator pitch. The current Things Fall Apart series essentially revisits these ideas with more formal constraints, something that I paradoxically am finding very liberating.

Looking at the list, it appears I've written quite a bit, and on many varied topics. In any case, I hope this proves useful to newcomers or that it serves to reintroduce old friends to the nascent toli that issued as I found my voice. Welcome again. July, 6, 2006. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I. The Journalistic Impulse

Strange Bedfellows

"I'm in the grip of the journalistic impulse."
This Be Ghana

Small Things

"You welcome the U.S. to the fun of the Third World."
This Be Ghana. This Be Koranteng

II. London's Got Soul

"Celebrating the South London Brew."
Catford cat

III. The Art of Toli

Musical Obsession

"If you live with a music lover you'll know that
there's something not quite right with them."
highlife musicians

Highlife Musicians

An Omnivorous Reader

"Quintessential abstractions flung across the table."

Frankies in Osu

IV. The New Formula

The B-Movie Theory

"Manifest Destiny revisited as farce."

Cultural Sensitivity

"It is rather in small, insignificant items that
the tribal instinct is articulated."
Mangoes in the garden

Oxford St, Osu RE

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The Great Move West

So The Wife and I leave for Berkeley in ten days. We have a weekend to do some furious packing before we hand our earthly possessions to those paragons of reliability known as The Movers. The chosen movers incidentally built in a lot of padding in their quote, 3,000 pounds worth of padding it seems, hmmmm, and there is some toli to be shared about their approach but I won't tempt fate until we safely receive said possessions on the other side. To paraphrase Dick Cheney, the last throes can be a very "interesting" phase.

All this to say that our time in Cambridge is fast drawing to a close (at least for the next couple of years), and that the Great Move West beckons.

Some would say it's about time, that 15 years living 10 minutes from your freshman dorm (and 11 years living 15 minutes from your office) indicates a certain aversion to change (or lack of imagination depending on your point of view). I've long found my relative stability a source of comfort. In any case, all change now...

I'll continue to work with Lotus/IBM - out of the San Francisco office with occasional forays to the Almaden lab. If you read the tea leaves closely you would have surmised that there was a transition 9 months ago, and that the work front has been more IBM than Lotus ever since. That switch made this westward journey easier and it has been good to be in a group ostensibly focused on web technologies.

I have been agitating for a certain reinvention of Big Blue with mostly middling results but my dark matter has occasionally warped things in the right direction which is pleasing. "This web thing is going to be big. Really!" I resisted the dot com temptation during that bubble, and I've been lucky enough on the whole to work on interesting technology. By and large, we've tended to keep in mind the effects of said technology on those who use it. Thus there is considerable delight in the problems I grapple with, and the solutions found, delight that overshadows the school of hard knocks that life sometimes enrolls you in (or voicemail hell to pick on a small thing).

If time permits, I'll share some assessments of the various tributaries of this chapter: Havard, Cambridge, Boston and the evolution of Lotus into IBM; some amateur anthropology perhaps from my ground level view. I suspect however that I'll be too busy engaging with the new to worry about such navel-gazing. Typically also, such things are better done at a certain remove.

I've been going through a fairly prolific phase of late, but now real life demands a blogging hiatus - at the very least until we settle on the new coast. In the interim I'll point you to a couple of new links intended to ease navigation on the blog: The Book of Toli and The Toli Technology Series. I'm slowly working up to The Pitch and hopefully there'll be good news when it's fully baked.

If you're in Boston you might well catch us at the Bastille Day business where Amadou and Mariam are purportedly performing - funny that one's last act in Boston is to listen to Malian and Senegalese musicians on the anniversary of the French Revolution, let them eat cake and all that) or at The Middle East on July 15th when The Brand New Heavies (!!!) and Van Hunt will do their thing. Some soulful and funky music to round out this chapter.

[Update] After the movers leave, I'll be doing a radio appearance on Radio Open Source on WGBH tonight Wednesday July 12th at 7pm, dispensing some toli on sports as a leading indicator. You can stream it live or listen to the podcast later. A last bostonian hurrah with Christopher Lydon, Chelsea Merz and crew.

Next stop Berkeley.

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