Wednesday, July 29, 2020


A surfeit of grief will tax even the most hardened observer
What more the pangs received by an exiled soul
For we were linked by more than a shared birthday
And, in your passing, I am left forlorn and heartbroken

The blows have come too quick in this ghastly pandemic
Relentless flurries of dismal jabs that are hard to parry
Even with the best preparation, it is hard to take the news
There's no easy living with this kind of abuse.

I remember my eighth birthday, a day I gladly spent with you
First the party at my house, and then at yours, it was round two
Perhaps that was peak happiness for me, for my ninth was under the curfew
And involved a hospital visit, a harrowing trip in light of the coup

After that, we only lasted a fortnight in the new military order
Before we made our escape from the warmth of Ghana's borders
But we were reunited, my aunt, a few years later
Our shattered lives hastened by the Ghana must go excavator

In North and South London flats we made our respective homes
Picking up the pieces and writing new tomes
At the prime of your life, you had to start back up from scratch
Find your way, externally displaced, making do with grey council flats
Those cladded towers for refugees somewhere past Elephant and Castle
And other areas like Peckham and Deptford, full of immigrant bustle

Well, no matter, you got down and did the African hustle
But righteous always, you never forgoed the high hurdles
No short cuts for you, you took these matters seriously.
And as for your duties as Auntie, they were all executed deftly

"Oh you this boy", you'd shake your head and laugh
And tease and redirect me back to the right path
Subtly done, this business of raising
Children, as observed in the village of waiting
You were truly mother to all and sundry
And thankfully, praise God, even to the adult me

Your other ministry was to tend to all those dispossessed souls
That woman we met in Shepherd's Bush whose husband beat her
That woman whose boyfriend stole her wages and gambled
That man, disconsolate that his loved one drank and dissembled,
Hiding bottles of alcohol in all manner of nooks and crannies
She couldn't hide the smell, even with those curiously strong mints that she carried
Her liquid predicament only spelled marital trouble
But you were there for both of them, quick fast, at the double

Troubleshooting with concern, it was your duty of care
A shoulder to cry to on, it was your cross to bear
You'd sometimes enlist Kwame for legal advice
Summon the troops in the community, and try to make nice
You provided solace for our tribe of Lonely Londoners
To soothe this immigrant life full of peril for us foreigners
While at work you were solving issues for English old age pensioners

Later you went back for the degree, and became a social worker
You took those night lessons in social studies
Even when you really should have been the teacher.
You'd long ago graduated from the school of hard knocks
Your Master's degree should have rather been in social living
You were the comfort suite for our community of scarred beings

back view

I look at that picture of you with that fabulous winter coat and that hat
Vaguely wondering what business we had living in that Brent Cross flat
You always caused a stir when you made an entrance
Causing a commotion, putting gathered men in a trance
There was no fuss, it was a simple matter of fact
You were highly attractive, the world would just have to deal with that
Your brand of African womanhood made everyone feel at ease and comfortable
Don't judge a book by its cover was your mantra, no matter how memorable

You didn't suffer fools lightly, let alone rogues and tyrants
You were Ghanaian excellence transplanted, a free gift to Londoners
How our country missed out, your talents so carelessly discarded
Your skills of discernment, now vouchsafed for Babylon's local government

Those grim-faced thugs, a pack of common looters
Some claiming ideology, but all sadly misguided
Were dispensing blood and fear back home with no compunction
You rather took our exile as an opportunity
To showcase the merits of a different direction

Recall those night services when you'd receive the holy spirit
After driving to a watch party in East London
You'd bring up the dawn having sang praise songs
To God be the glory, his eternal light we inherit

And so throughout, you were my blanket of soul
I appreciated all the care and love that you brought
Each word judiciously selected, the right bon mot and anecdote
A storyteller, you weaved your tales with intricate patterns
Oh to sit at your dining table or kitchen as the world turns
Stories grounded in love, you'd sing Always and Forever
Those punchlines and morals were how we learned
You raised your three children imbued with a sense of God
Full of confidence, with not a trace of the immigrant's diffidence
Fearless my cousins, but really this was what you imparted to all of us
We came from something else, the descendents of chiefs and queens
The clarity of your thought guided us like moon beams
Taviefe's finest daughter, you infected us with your laughter.

Our Gang Road

Circling forward to a moment of ultimate loss
I had just sent the note to your soul sister
My Aunt Sue, whose distress at your passing runs far, far deeper

I learned of your death in the most awful case of serendipity.
The two of us had been discussing the story of a woman named Betty
I'd proudly told her that I'd finally written that overdue bit of toli
Recalling that I'd changed the names, but that you were the D in her story.

I was headed out with the Wife and the family
A Sunday walk to break the covidious monotony
The phone vibrated, a message from Aunt Susie:

"Good morning, just began reading your ode to Betty
Am so grateful that you spent time to write beautifully
about her. Perhaps it's providence, but Dela passed away about 2 hours ago."

I faltered. A shriek. This news did grievous damage to my soul.
Tears. Wracked with loss, there were uncontrolled sobs.
"...My special Aunt...", eventually was all that I could manage.

They gathered around me, full of concern.
Hugs and pats. "Are you okay, Daddy?"
The Wife could see the damage: "Should we turn back?"
Oh, it is still too much to bear, I can hardly write that.
At length: "No. Let's keep on walking."
And so we continued, I had to monitor my breathing.

It was the hardest walk, I admit, I faltered at times.
Crumpled more like, it was hard to stay in a straight line.
The tears would have broken through Akosombo dam
And torn through the bridge at Atimpoku.
The waters of the Volta river at her most furious
Couldn't compare to my grief unleashed, I was delirious.
But I had to walk tall in remembrance of you
Take in the sights of the city, and remember my familial duties

Each step on the long walk brought back a fond memory
I renamed you as Yaa in my tale of Catford Bridge
In my roman-a-clef, you were my Helen of Troy
I couldn't believe the twists and turns of that nighttime odyssey
And as for the Bullet From A Gun concoction,
You were the muse injecting whimsy in my new directions

All those years I would stay with you regularly,
You became my rechargeable link to the land of Her Majesty
Rule Britania was viewed through your unique lens
The faded glory of the United Kingdom by way of your Catford fence

While JJ and crew were proceeding with impunity
From Ghana with love, yours was the gift of global citizenry
We gained a more earthy and grounded Kofi Annan
Doing diligent duty on the streets of South London
The nations you united were sundry tribes of Londoners
Some, like you, suffering the reign of rogues and dictators
But you eschewed bitterness about our lost decades
Preferring to focus instead on our lives remade
If only more had been like you in our moment of need
As in the parable, some birds might have devoured the seed
But you stood up and were counted and continued sowing.
You found the good soil, your grains of thought keep growing.

And then we turn to that bit of tragedy
About the dear friend you took in named Betty
The words I had written for her now seemed ready made for you

This is an elegy rather than a lament,
For such thoughts never crossed her mind.
This is an ode for a woman in full,
A spirit heaven-sent.

My aunt, I hadn't realized it was the night of your marriage
31st December 1981
That came the military coup that would cause us all such damage
Could it really be that you, ever since, had to celebrate that strife?
Irony is the key register of African life


You made your way home to Ghana on your own terms.
Carefully plotted, as was your wont, every step of the return
There was one twist that was a surprise, as I would later learn.
Of Ghana's New Christianity, they've written many tomes
Of fraudulent pastors and the amounts they managed to spend
Indeed, where one would have expected to see a Mama Benz
Your new church was rather for folks who lived in uncompleted homes!

There were those bouts of treatment, you were in and out of hospital
The injustice of all this happening to someone so careful and methodical
12 years fighting cancer, you bore the brunt of considerable pain
But there were no complaints, even physically diminished, your spirit was the same.
Perhaps we should turn to the good book and quote Timothy:
"But godliness with contentment is great gain"

And so I thought I'd write a poem to you as a memorial
And perhaps read it out loud on the day of your burial
"Strictly White or Black & White", I've been told is the dress code
Well, I'll wear this suit of words on the written page and this ode
"All COVID-19 protocols and directives will be strictly observed"
The superspreading event should be your memory, if justice was served
My special aunt departed is to me quite intolerable
I really can't bear the thought of another Zoom funeral
So I'll try to conjure an Ewe dirge in the grandest tradition
A celebration of your life, Dela, and your enduring mission

In memory of Dela Dusu

Songs for Dela

Some music to soothe the soul. (spotify)

See also: Grief, a playlist

Also related: Ode to Betty Brown

I nominate this note for The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of Social Living.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020


There is a hunger that recognizes no shame
An ache that only a touch can satisfy
Muscle memory engineers a fond homecoming
Togetherness can salve the great longing
Bonds throughout time leave one sated

Relieving distancing by invoking storytelling
Of narratives of separation and rediscovery
While innocents lie sleeping in nearby chambers
Imposters are left tracing the contours of responsibility
Anxieties their close companions in the nightly search

Mami Wata's siren call is African electronics
The temptation to escape into twilight frolics
Writing books of laughter and forgetting
Embracing the rapture, wide awake yet still dreaming
Curvilinear investigations and material science
The fluid dynamics of conversational lines
Performance untethered from the desire for applause
Sensation the remedy for previous and impending loss

Tied together in close consonance
The end of the affair rests in the balance
The arguments forgotten in the brief encounter
Listen to the sounds: the self-isolating heart murmurs
This. This, right here, is where you belong
Momentarily you forget your mother tongue
The solitude of a stifled scream is about all you can manage
Touch is a conversation in another language

Trees of life

aburi tree 15 years old

Mulberry tree

Touch, A Playlist

As always a soundtrack to this note. Obsessions are many. (Youtube, Spotify)

This was the first poem-like thing that was gifted to me at the onset of this covidious interlude (Friday March 20 per my notes). It felt entirely too raw to publish and a departure from my usual practice. I have since gone on a tear in other directions with my gestures towards poetics, enough that any misgivings are assuaged by the distance of time.

The muse wills what she wants, I dare not question her.

club lager

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

The New Warfare

I shouldn't make light of it since lives have been lost, but the most significant development in international affairs this millennium is China's decision to send a squad of martial artists to deal with its border dispute with India. All wars henceforth should be hand to hand combat.

I know the military industrial complex is finding this covidious interlude frustrating, what with a mere virus taking over their Grim Reaper duties. Needless to say, this pandemic kind of thing is bad for business. What more the spectre of hand to hand combat to settle international disputes? Diplomacy is being thoroughly disrupted.

Bruce Lee already wrote the script in Enter the Dragon, so we could line up all the actors in this political theatre. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are currently idled, and are itching to spring back into action. This could be the most effective way to revive The Grand Reopening of Texas in this silly season. Mister Trump has even appeared in wrestling bouts in his earlier youthful indiscretions, surely, this is something he could get behind, especially as the attempt to inaugurate a Space Force was too little too late. No, hand to hand combat is just the Grand Guignol spectacle to relieve our lockdown ennui. Bill it as the Game of Death, the Game of Thrones was so last year's must see TV.

Sure, it would be a transfer of wealth from Raytheon and company to Comcast and the Disney contingent, but let's face it, it's the same oligarchs ultimately behind the scenes, and it would be more entertaining than what warfare has been for the human race throughout history. The surplus to society of bread and circuses instead of the constant saber rattling and brandishing of missile systems, nuclear weapons and the like would be immense. The betting industry would love nothing better than taking wagers on India versus China in the global ring. Why have expensive nuclear weapon programs when what is really required is some Shaolin monks bent on revenge? Moreover, the shadow economy is in dire need of a stimulus package. Let the dollar circulate, Secretary Mnuchin, pitch it to your boss. The possibilities are endless.

Mind you, there is no guarantee that China would come out top in the contest. Bollywood already has counters to Chinese expertise. The catapult scene from Bahubali 2 stands up in extravagance to almost any action movie I've seen. Albeit Pakistan might welcome the depletion of Indian resources and send some commandos to Kashmir. In any case, I would venture that Hong Kong's elite martial artists might boycott the fight and perhaps Beijing might reconsider imposing their national security law.

Ghana will happily take on Cote d'Ivoire with a squad of Bukom bombers. Ike "Bazooka" Quartey and The Professor himself Azumah Nelson, even in retirement, will deal promptly with anything our western brothers can come up with. The offshore oil is ours my friends.

talking drums 1985-10-14 Azumah's World Crown at stake

Senegal and Nigeria can send competing squads of wrestlers to finally settle the issue of Ecowas's common currency, although I suppose Anthony Joshua can be a substitute boxer on the Nigerian side (divided loyalties Your Majesty), but I think Senegal will have the upper hand. Aminatta Sow Fall did write L’Appel des arènes after all, and who can compete with the strength of her African letters. Also: better jollof.

L'Appel des arenes

South and North Korea will duke it out in Taekwondo across the line of control, it goes without saying. The North's cashflow problems would be resolved based on gambling receipts alone. No need for starvation wages for the populace, North Korean consulates the world over would breath easier. No more counterfeiting for one.

Russia's judo squad can jawbone with Turkish oil wrestlers instead of the malign standoff we currently have between Emperors Putin and Erdogan disrupting countries all the way from Syria to Libya in The Great Game.

Egypt and Ethiopia will settle this business about the new dam on the Nile river instead of engaging in nation-state sponsored cyber attacks. The female Arbegnoch fighters of yore can certainly joust with the best Egyptian UFC fighters, not to mention they are very pleasing on the eye. I might give the Ethiopians the edge, their president just won the Nobel prize while no one will be motivated to fight for General Sisi, who must be the most garden variety of garden variety dictators - he doesn't even try, no personality cult, come on Sisi.

With a hotspot like Nagorno-Karabakh heating up and starred generals perishing after 3 days of fighting on the borders, Azerbaijan and Armenia would do well to look towards their neigbour, Mongolia's Nadaam festival - such 'manly games' would fit the bill, in what is "traditionally seen as a celebration of its three 'men's games' of wrestling, horse-racing and archery". The archers wore masks and the usual crowds were missing this year, but now that everyone in the world has a mobile phone they were still a success even with social distancing.

Mongolia's Naadam festival 2020 featured social distancing and no crowds

Companies like my employer, instead of designing newfangled infantry squad vehicles for quarter billion dollar contracts, might get to apply their supply chain expertise to more essential pursuits. The public relation rewards and goodwill that accrue are priceless.

My vision of the new warfare is no less improbable than the infectious sounds and scenario of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney fighting over a girl in The Girl is Mine. Now who could resist that piece of pop magic? Everyone goes for the obvious hits when it comes decoding the success of Thriller, but it is the one-two punch of Baby Be Mine and The Girl is Mine that is the unappreciated genius stroke of the album.

"Michael, we're not going to fight"
"Paul, I think I told you, I'm a lover not a fighter."

Even if you think or thought that it was syrupy or that he'd lost his mind, you couldn't resist imagining the spectacle let alone the music (remember there was no video for the track). The song disarmed you with its ingenousness and burrowed its way through your ears into global consciousness.

And finally, Osama bin Laden could have saved all of us so much heartache by simply pitting his team of assassins against the 2001 US contingent: Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Arturo Gatti, Oscar de la Hoya, Shane Mosely, and Evander Holyfield. True, de la Hoya was the weak link of that lineup (conflicted loyalties again). Instead we are stuck with asymetrical warfare and the attendant security theater of Recent Non-Specific General Threats.

Here's awaiting your suggestions for potential matchups in the new warfare, Dear Reader. There's plenty of room for innovation here. What? You've really got something better to do than engage in mindless speculation in these covidious times? Come on... I've left you an opening, the floor is yours...

A closing quote
Diplomacy means the art of nearly deceiving all your friends, but not quite deceiving all your enemies.

Kofi Abrefa Busia

The New Warfare, a playlist

As usual, a soundtrack for this note (also on Spotify, albeit less complete, who owns the rights to The Electric Spanking of War Babies these days?).

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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Top Public Health Interventions

A list of the top public health interventions in history...

  • Sewer pipes (Mesopotamia 4000 BC)
  • Soap (for washing hands circa 2800 BC)
  • Emperor Shennong of China mandating drinking boiled tea (2737 BC)
  • Mosquito nets (from Cleopatra's time through present)
  • Vaccination (Jenner 1796, Pasteur 1880)
  • Pasteurization (Pasteur 1864)
  • Antibiotics (pace Fleming's penicillin 1928 onward)
  • Existence of unions (1827 onward)
  • Child labor laws (starting with the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819 in England to present)
  • Birth control pills (Djerassi 1951, and Pincus and Rock producing Enovid, the first birth control pill approved in 1957)
  • Tobacco control (1952 to present, from the 1964 US Surgeon General report through the Tobacco Control Act of 2009)
  • Seat belts (1955 to present, the crucial milestone was 1966 with the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in the USA)
  • Occupational safety regulations (kicked into high gear in the US with Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970)
  • Water fluoridation (widespread after 1945)
  • Iodized salt (1924 onward)
  • Ban on use of lead in gasoline (regulation starting 1973 - banned in US with Clean Air act in 1996)
  • Antiretrovirals, especially in African countries to manage HIV (1996 onward)
  • Board certification for doctors (1917 onward)
  • FDA approval for food and medicine (onset with Food and Drug Act in USA 1906, effective after 1938's Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act )
  • Helmets (although a 1600 BC invention, their public health application came in sports after 1896 for American football and transportation circa 1914 with the motorcycle helmet)
  • Gun control (in most countries almost immediately after its invention circa 1000 AD with Yemen and the USA as modern day outliers)
  • Alcohol control (an ongoing and uneasy spectrum of regulations even to the extent of prohibition with religion even weighing in)
  • Oral rehydration therapy (1940s, popularized with ORS sachets especially after the refugees successfully treated during cholera epidemic of cholera after the Bangladeshi Liberation War)
  • Facial masks and shields (briefly after the influenza pandemic of 1918, in East Asia after the SARS pandemic of 2003, in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan and the Czech Republic memorably immediately after the start of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 pandemic January-April 2020, and the rest of the world circa March - June 2020, with notable American exceptionalism - in most enlightened states in the US. The N95 respiratory mask, conceived in 1992, remains a milestone although cloth masks have long had their uses. Whither my Texas neighbors you may ask? The neighbor who was overheard just a month ago, after The Grand Reopening of Texas, shouting "There is no virus" remains under the relentless grip of the Positivity of The Governors even after their July 2020 pivot. My best guess is that it will take 9 months, or perhaps personal experience, for the aversion to evidence and public health to penetrate consciousness. On the other hand, norms can change quickly, as evidenced in other countries, but I won't hold out hope for the year 2020 in the USA at large, I think it's a Vision 2021 project despite the rising body count)

This became a collaborative list with crucial additions from friends and The Wife, whose pointed comment about the birth control pill prompted me to add It's a Man's Man's Man's World by James Brown to the playlist I was conjuring for this list. Indeed oral contraceptives have probably positively affected the greatest numbers of humans lives outside of soap and sewers.

A twitter follower also challenged me that it was Emperor Shennong's courtiers, not the Emperor himself, who mandated boiling tea - that the Emperor just preferred his tea boiled. This again speaks to the Princpal-Agent relationship, and posits that there is a difference between the wishes of the Emperor and those surrounding him. The suggestion is that "Who will boil me this tea?" is the antecedent to "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?". I dodged the question as is my wont because, in any case, it was fortuitous that boiling water, with its side effect of killing germs and other beastly organisms, became an integral part of humanity's public health arsenal.

There was some controversy about my inclusion of child labor and the existence of unions, enough that I was even moved to play Devil's advocate

Think about it, would we have Dickens without child labour? What paradise have we lost when the youth of Bangladesh, or Ghana are no longer doing shifts in the textile factory, or planting yams and pineapples in the hills of Aburi? Our modern day Oliver Twists and Little Annie's no longer have the hard knock life, coddled as they are with this modernity, they have school not farms, and they are constantly demanding fondleslabs of mobile entertainment.

Of course, it was facetious to posit a world without Dickens, there was more than enough outrage in 19th century England and the world for Charles Dickens to get novelistic material. The little street urchins and cannon fodder for the worst excesses of capitalism might make the headlines but the the vast majority of capitalism's operation is a mundane grind, a rigged shell game on a tilted playing field - pick your metaphor. Call them the underlying conditions and risk factors that favour capital over labour. The notion of "the weekend", far from being divinely prescribed as days of rest, was in actuality a hard fought victory of labor and trade unions, as were occupational safety regulations. Social welfare and the advances in communal living have had considerable impact beyond the economic sphere and have public health effects.

Looking over the list, the human species has gotten away with much faulty biology and superstition. I suppose that belief in unseen things is what makes the Gospel of Germs such a hard sell that it requires constant marketing and reinforcement. Hilaire Belloc would satirize late 19th century popular conceptions of The Microbe in The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and More Beasts (For Worse Children). Things are not much changed in 2020 than in 1897.

The Microbe by Hilaire Belloc

The Microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots
The Microbe by Hilaire Belloc 2

On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen -
But Scientist, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so...
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about.

It is interesting that the tiny clumps of viral RNA that are driving our current covidious predicament fit much the same description.

the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

The inverse list is also interesting, and we have a great candidate in Thomas Midgley for the most catastrophic intervention. Midgley invented both leaded petrol, and the CFCs (chlorinated fluorocarbon) used in refrigerators. The collateral damage, and body count, of these two inventions are world historic. Still, knowledge about their effects on the environment was not well known in his lifetime, unlike the inventors of gunpowder or the nuclear bomb. Midgley didn't have an Alfred Nobel come-to-Jesus moment and continued tinkering until his death.

I think we have real time candidates for the negative list either with neglect or by wilful policy decision making. It's slightly morbid to follow the implications of that thought because it gets to valuing abstraction over of flesh and blood. What is the value of a human life? And who gets to coldly decide that on the golf course or hastily fortified bunker?

Back to Basics

Covid-19 is a funny disease as my doctor uncles and aunts put it. It's forcing humanity to go back to basics and causing us all to change our way of life. If you take a look at the coronavirus superspreading timeline, you quickly get a sense of the activities that are now to be avoided, they involve crowds, and places with poor ventilation and sanitation, and where we sing or chant. We basically shouldn't touch or breathe on each other. And these are hard lessons to teach and follow, as I've found even after months of self isolation. The 7 and 9 year olds in my household are not the only ones that need constant reminders about the best practices for survival, frequently washing hands is not obvious despite our best efforts to make it a habit. It's hard to be a good neighbor when you can't do small talk and even conversations over the fence are fraught and wary episodes.

All communal gatherings have the potential for risky distribution of disease even as they might give comfort and social and economic utility. Paradoxically, we need to draw on social living for comfort and resilience, yet in our present, it is social distancing and enforced absence and the foregoing of our rituals and traditions that is our best chance of survival.

We are all in this together and it pays to learn the lessons of The Mosquito Principle, for these clumps of viral RNA, like our close and longstanding companions, mosquitos, don't discriminate. While we wait for a vaccine or effective treatment for Covid-19, our mantra has got to be: stay home if at all possible, maintain social distancing, and wash hands with soap frequently, wear masks when outside and perhaps even indoors when there is poor ventilation or if in the company of others beyond one's core living unit.

Optional: pray.

For faith healing is always an option; epidemiologists will forever be fighting a rearguard action against the placebo effect of faith. The other alternative is the very human hope that you will be saved, a deus ex machina is always a possibility - vaccines do get developed. Indeed this wishful thinking is firmly embedded in American mythology and culture.

And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes
Riding to the rescue at the last possible moment
The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse
Or, the man who always came to save America at the last moment

Someone always came to save America at the last moment
Especially in B-movies

B-movie by Gil Scott-Heron

In lieu of herd immunity, researchers at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), or perhaps the Surgeon General, would do well to issue the following public warning:

Nostalgia can be a fatal disease.

Observers are worried

chief zaachi physical and spiritual center

A Public Health Playlist

As always, a soundtrack for this note. (spotify version)

Suffice to say that I prefer public health interventions to faith healing, as always there is the fine print: your mileage may vary

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Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The London Bombings

I wrote two trilogies in the wake of the July 7 2005 London bombings - the 7/7 bombings as they became known. I took it personal even before reading that the first declared casualty was a Ghanaian woman. Moreover I later learned that this was someone that I knew whose life story to that point had been a touchpoint for my family. No, all the casualties mattered. The failed follow-on attempts on July 21 2005 only deepened the wound when reports came in that a suspect was said to be Ghanaian. Unraveling that case of identity theft amidst the horror and grief caused a reckoning over the years.

The first trilogy went under the banner of London's Got Soul, and explored the place and the people, celebrating the London brew and the vibe of what is one of my favourite places on earth. As befits a celebration, the tone was warm and lighhearted. The second trilogy, part of my Things Fall Apart series, was also personal, but understandably sober, as I delved into the Ghanaian connections to the events. Thus I came up with a broad spectrum of responses that ranged from whimsy and irreverence to heartache and stark reflection, even as I occasionally aimed for the lyrical. I certainly had to get it out of my system as a kind of exorcism by prose, music and poetry. Perhaps it was as Joan Didion has suggested: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live". I hope some of this collected toli might be up your alley.

catford sidewalk painting

London's Got Soul
I too lived under the depredations of the IRA in the 80s and 90s so instead of wallowing in the undoubted horror of the moment, I'm going to be celebrating the flavour of the place.
Catford Bridge
Some action-packed travel journalism and a photo essay.
Bullet from a Gun
A hip-hop photo essay in the vein of South London's vibe, the Toli Remix of Derek B's Bullet From a Gun. Now with a music video adaptation if you want to skip the easy words.
Kente, Lace and Champagne
Pondering a photo and a poem amidst unfinished sympathy

The London's Got Soul pieces continue to be very popular - I wonder if it's because I leavened things with photos.


Identity Theft

The first piece in my Things Fall Apart series dealt with collateral damage on the periphery, an immigrant's stolen identity. It was written under the influence of Four Women by Nina Simone.

Wake up one day
They say you're a bomber

Of No Fixed Abode

Written a couple of years later, the second note was concerned with the "fourth man": the fifth bomber. A man "Thought to be Bukhari", "of no fixed abode".

Enemy combatants
Collateral damage

Bomb factories
Moral blinders

Ode to Betty Brown

The last note dealt with the eponymous casualty. It took me 14 years to find a way to write Betty's tale. For the longest time I couldn't move beyond the title and the first sentence I had scribbled down when I learned of her passing. Once I did, however, everything poured out in just a couple of hours, I somehow tapped a well of inspiration and, for what it's worth, it is among my proudest bits of writing.

Complaining was not her style. She put up with more setbacks than anyone this side of Job and that Count of Monte Christo fellow, and yet she gave new meaning to the term resilience.

This is an elegy rather than a lament, for such thoughts never crossed her mind. This is an ode for a woman in full, a spirit heaven-sent.

catford black beauty

When this covidious interlude is over, London will be one of my first ports of call. It means that much to me.

Soundtrack for these notes

A playlist as is my norm, music soothes my soul when I write.
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Friday, July 03, 2020


The Grand Reopening of Texas Toli remix of Positivity by Prince and The Governors...


Positivity (Yes)
Have you had your plus sign today?
And we had the best Covid results we've ever had all through May and the beginning of June, I mean positivity was low, the cases were low.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida May 26 2020
On this day of The Grand Reopening of Texas, it gives me no joy to note that, of the four countries my life's journey has taken in, Ghana is probably managing this covidious challenge the best even with the greatest constraints (closely followed by France - the less said about the UK and US responses, the better).

The Grand Reopening of Texas, Chief Toli Monger May 4 2020

Positivity (Yes)
"Fewer Texans test positive for COVID-19 than residents of any large state in the United States. — Greg Abbott (June 19 2020)"...

We rate this claim False.

Fact-checking Gov. Greg Abbott on coronavirus in Texas The Statesman June 19 2020
Do we mark you present, or do we mark you late?
Texas didn’t meet the guidelines laid out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May before moving to a phased reopening.

Austin has nation’s highest 7-day metro positivity rate of coronavirus tests June 27 2020
Is that a good man?
Walking down that street with that money in his hand
Is that a good man?
Positivity (Yes)
Have you had your plus sign today?
Positivity (Yes)
Do we mark you present, or do we mark you late?
Gov. Greg Abbott continued to tout Texas's hospital capacity as plentiful Tuesday as hospitalizations due to the new coronavirus hit new highs and the state presses forward with business reopenings.

Abbott, speaking during a news conference in Austin, called the state’s capacity “abundant” and said officials are “laser-focused” on maintaining that level.

Gov. Greg Abbott points to “abundant” hospital capacity as Texas continues with business reopenings June 16 2020
Is that all your gold?
Where did it come from?
What did you have to do?
(did you have to do?)

Can you sleep nights?
Do you dream straight up?
Just nine days ago, Abbott touted the state's "abundant" hospital capacity as the numbers of cases in the state were rising quickly.

Texas Governor Hits 'Pause' On Further Reopening Amid COVID-19 Surge June 25 2020
Or do you dream in W's?
"Hospitals have a lot of capacity...

So we are very well positioned to be able to handle what comes down the pike

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: "We're not going back, closing things" press conference Anderson Cooper 360 June 30 2020
Positivity (Yes)
Have you had your plus sign today?

Randy Kaye (CNN): You heard there him say that the positivity rate in Florda is 10 to 15 percent. Anderson, that is just not true. In Lee County where Fort Myers is, they've seen a positivity rate of 20 percent, that's up from 13 percent. And in Miami-Dade county, the positivity rate for the last two weeks has averaged more than 17 percent. The county itself says it would like to be around 10 percent. And just finally, the hospitals, he says, he said today that the hospitals have plenty of capacity. Again Anderson, not true. The mayor of Miami, on CNN just last night, saying that some hospitals in Miami are either at or close to capacity, Anderson.

Anderson Cooper: Hmm.

Anderson Cooper 360 June 30 2020
Shall the court sing together?
"In every man's life there will be a hang-up
A whirlwind designed to slow you down
It cuts like a knife, it tries to get in you
This Spooky Electric sound
Give up if you want to and all is lost
Spooky Electric will be your boss"
the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick faced a backlash Tuesday for suggesting that fellow seniors should risk their health for the sake of the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sacrifice the old to help the economy? Texas official’s remark prompts backlash March 24 2020
Call People magazine, Rolling Stone
Call your next of kin, cause your ass is gone
He's got a 57 mag with the price tag still on the side
Cussing when Spooky say dead, you better say died
Every life is valuable, but 500 people out of 29 million and we’re locked down, and we’re crushing the average worker. We’re crushing small business. We’re crushing the markets. We’re crushing this country. There are more important things than living

Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick: ‘There are more important things than living’ during pandemic April 22 2020
Don't kiss the beast
“And I don’t want to die, nobody wants to die, but man, we got to take some risks and get back in the game, and get this country back up and running."

Texas' Dan Patrick: 'There are more important things than living' April 22 2020
We need love and honesty
Peace and harmony
The bloc will allow visitors from 15 countries, but the United States, Brazil and Russia were among the notable absences from the safe list.

E.U. Formalizes Reopening, Barring Travelers From U.S. June 30 2020
Love and honesty
Peace and harmony

“In my view, the worst thing we can do is to lock down Texas again. That’s not what Gov. Abbott wants. That’s not what I want,” he said. “But we need help from the young people out there to help bring these number of cases down and free up hospital beds.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says Dr. Anthony Fauci “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” July 1 2020
I said, hold on to your soul
Texas reported its latest record-breaking daily increase in cases of the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, with 6,975 new infections identified. The number surpassed Italy's highest single-day jump in virus cases to date

Texas Daily COVID-19 Cases Top Italy's Record When It Was Global Epicenter June 30 2020
You got a long way to go
"Italy saw its highest single-day increase in cases of the novel virus on March 21, with 6,557 new diagnoses. Texas and Italy reported similar weekly average increases in cases surrounding their respective peaks, with both identifying at least 3,500 new infections per day. Italy's record increase came roughly two weeks into the country's national lockdown, which Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte originally implemented March 9. The country continued to diagnose several thousand new cases daily until early May

Texas Daily COVID-19 Cases Top Italy's Record When It Was Global Epicenter June 30 2020
Hold on to your soul
Abbott's order marks a major reversal. For over two months, he ignored calls by the Democratic leaders of Texas' metropolitan areas to mandate mask wearing.

He refused to allow leaders in Houston to enforce their own face-covering mandate with penalties, undercutting their ability to slow the spread of the virus. Hospital officials in Houston have said intensive care beds there are now in short supply.

We got a long way to go

American Exceptionalism on the Virus June 29 2020

Hold on to your soul

Fade out with increasingly stark Linn drum breakbeat...

florida positivity rate reaches record

II. Positivity Reprise (Some Covidious Poetry)

Positivity (Yes)

Amateur epidemiology (Yes)
Profit mythology (Yes)
Faulty biology (Yes)
B-movie theory (Yes)
Capital monopoly (Yes)
Black Gold ideology (Yes)
Wicked wizardry (Yes)
"We are crushing the economy." (Yes)
"Hospitals have a lot of capacity." (Yes)
"I don't take responsibility" (Yes)
"Reopen the economy" (Yes)
Let's ignore Doctor Fauci (Yes)

Positivity (Yes)

Cowboy tomfoolery (Yes)
Shameless mimicry (Yes)
Constitutional lootery (Yes)
Delay-Deny policy (Yes)
Dereliction of duty (Yes)
Entitled supremacy (Yes)
Sense of superiority (Yes)
Assumed invincibility (Yes)
Disgraceful poverty (Yes)
Unvarnished sociopathy (Yes)
Unbridled pathology (Yes)

Positivity (Yes)

Buyer's remorse suddenly (Yes)
Selective amnesia mentality (Yes)
In search of herd immunity (Yes)

Positivity (Yes)

The phantom thread of greed lies at the heart of the matter
Their liability certificates are being served on a platter
Calls for sacrifice while seeking to avoid blame
America's real herd immunity is to shame

Positivity (Yes)

See also:

Soundtrack for this note

Hearing the afrofuturist demo of Positivity has made my day, month and year. Youtube is the gift that keeps on giving and this time we have 5 different versions of the track. The album version gets the glossy sheen of the Lovesexy production to distinguish it from the Black album era, the others are minimalist funk masterpieces. There's also a live version with Patti Labelle and Mavis Staples's cover from The Voice.

Positivity, A Playlist

I did a quick juxtaposition of photos from the last time we saw Prince live, three weeks before our first child was born. The Welcome 2 America tour was a return to form, Larry Graham, Santana and Sheila E were in the house. He even did a cover of Amel Larrieux's No one Else. What more could one want. We'll see if the Prince estate allows this adaptation to live on, I suspect the Spooky Electric covidious implication might be a bridge too far. Hold on to your soul, we've got a long way to go.

[Update] January 2021 - my video remix was removed by the copyright police although, interestingly, 5 other uploads are still available on Youtube. Oh well...

Previously in the same vein

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Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Version Hell Revisited

A surprisingly large proportion of the issues a working software engineer deals with on a daily basis turn out to be cultural. My theory is that this is because software ultimately amounts to people problems, and that it's all about coordination costs and human factors, as I've written about previously. This is not to say that we don't deal with the hard problems, but perhaps the "soft" in software hints at the lingering craft aspect even as we try to escape from Deadwood and leap into our industrial revolution.

This is one reason that I've found that, similarly, a large proportion of the best software engineers I've encountered in my now 25 years experience have not been traditional computer scientists. The linguists, historians and even that rare anthropologist, some of whom picked up the profession on the side, or out of expedience as the web has allowed, have been the real dark matter of technology. The web with its radical simplicity, has allowed mass amateurization to prevail. Now mind you, you do need your stereotypical straight ahead just-the-facts engineers with blinkered and relentless nerdy application, and, increasingly as software becomes more professionalized, the guilds and dark factory mills have started appearing. But hold that thought for now, I have another story to tell, indeed you may call it a technology folktale.

Tower of Babel

I came across this memo written a long, long time ago, in a far faraway land, (to be truthful, it was a Friday afternoon and I was fed up). Certain names have been changed to protect the guilty, and don't assume the anachronistic references mean that it is of recent vintage. Consider it perhaps a glimpse at the way the software sausage is made and we all know the scandal of slaughterhouses although we now call them meatpacking plants in polite society.

The context is some wrangling where at least 6 teams were pointing fingers at each other about who was responsible for uploading some tools that The Company was using. The flow of data through the system had at length been established, and it was now a coordination problem more than a design and architecture problem. The problem was that different teams were responsible for different components. The email chain had been playing out for months it seemed. I was stuck in the middle making arbitrary decisions mainly by virtue of having written a core piece of the system. I kept asking and everyone kept dodging my increasingly pointed questions. And so I wrote the following:

Previously in the same vein: Version Hell

The Memo

From: Koranteng@Toli
To: A long list of interested parties
Date: Friday afternoon, a long, long time ago
Subject: Toolchain versioning Re: provide version number Re: Signing Re: [snip]

I want to tease out the various strands because I'm finding it hard to serve the competing masters here.

Let me pitch it as a folktale, it's a pandemic and we all need comforting narratives.

Master Johnson, my director, would be paraphrased as follows:

Our current process is the moral equivalent of taking a USB stick dropped by our Vendor in our parking lot, and placing that software in our august data centers to sign our Crown Jewels. Now this may be what we're reduced to, but don't blindly use any old tools we are given, let's at least make sure that we track and bless known versions of this toolchain.

There were stronger words said at the outset back when we had our deep dive on our last integration project late last year.

Master Security Team pitched in, again paraphrasing...

Well, in this sorry business, we've normally done integrations of these tools for a given year. We're already overtaxed and busy and we burn weekends to get the integration working. But once we've got it working, we've got clean hands. We don't touch it anymore unless there's an error using them. We're not happy with this but ye olde signing tools ultimately come from the Ministry of Information team. We're middlemen here and the Signing and Software Release teams are the ones that integrate these tools into The Company's IT solutions.

Master Ministry of Information Team is also in a pickle. He receives vendor builds and has to produce release builds with the help of Butler Jenkins. These blasted tools are just one piece of the overall puzzle (you should see what else is on his plate). His main requirement is to be able to reliably sign and update this software for the lifetime of The Product, a decades long quest.

His junior sister, Miss Android Team actually works closely with Messers Qualcomm, Broadcom and Intel, and gets periodic updates from Vendor Google who changes signing requirements at a pace of its own choosing, those Mountain View people move at the speed of the web.

I'll omit the other players who are also similarly overtaxed, although I should make special mention of Mistress Software Release Team who actually owns the official release process and is always playing catch up integrating with Information and with Signing and other things I'm not even aware of.

Tower of Babel

Meanwhile I'm sitting like Ananse the Spider tending to my farm in the land of Signing and perhaps you can see the roots of my dilemma:

Each build could have a new version of the dismal signing tools.

Per Master Johnson, I can't blindly just sign with any old version of the Signing tools I am presented with. That man signs off on my annual review, so I cross him at my peril.

Per Mistress Software Release Team, I have a frozen API in place which doesn't specify the toolchain version. In any case, there is a long chain between Android, Information, Software Release to Signing, and the lead time to change things is measured in the cost of "Projects". We are booked for months, nay years ahead and agility is a problem here at The Company - The Company's initiatives on agility and the cloud native adoption notwithstanding.

Anyway my solution, as it is, is that I will support "blessed" versions of the toolchain. All that is left is for someone to upload these versions.

Now I'm stuck in the middle of all this, and so far it has been yours truly that is arbitrarily uploading versions of the toolchain based on what I've seen coming through in our test environment. I actually don't know what is a significant version and I don't really want to be in this loop. Further I am making decisions above my pay grade without any domain knowledge of these dismal signing tools.

The details matter and someone needs to own this and solve my riddle.

  • Who is it that uploads the "blessed" versions of the toolchain to Signing?
  • More fundamentally, who decides what is a blessed version of the toolchain?
I'll end by invoking my friend Sam Ruby's Postulate
The accuracy of metadata is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the data and the metadata.

I am clearly furthest from the data, so somebody closer needs to make the call. Perhaps I'm reading from the wrong playbook, but I'm merely trying to add value here.

Chief Toli Monger
The Company

[snip distressing long chain of emails going back 5 months of people passing the buck]

Tower of Babel


I'd like to think that my late Friday email did have the clarifying effect I intended with its visions of Ruby's Postulate and The Tower of Babel. There were certainly calls for action, and immediate action at that. I learned that I had underestimated the extent of the dysfunction at The Company. There were actually at least 8 other teams that I might have added to my folktale, and they each had their own sorry origin story. The list of people inside The Company who I learned had read my missive was impressive and growing.

There were ruffled feathers however. People who should have dealt with the underlying organizational and communication issue were upset that I had revealed it so starkly. Lots of meetings were called. Action items were issued and so forth. I was advised to let others handle things at this stage. I was also reminded of John Kenneth Galbraith writing in The Great Crash of 1929.

... the rite of the meeting which is called not to do business but to do no business...

One of the oldest, most important - and unhappily, one of the least understood - rites in American life.

Men meet together for many reasons in the course of business. They need to instruct or persuade each other. They must agree on a course of action. They find thinking in public more productive or less painful than thinking in private. But there are at least as many reasons for meetings to transact no business. Meetings are held because men seek companionship or, at a minimum, wish to escape the tedium of solitary duties. They yearn for prestige which accrues to the man who presides over meetings, and this leads them to convoke assemblages over which they can preside.

Finally there is the meeting which is called not because there is business to be done, but because it is necessary to create the impression that business is being done. Such meetings are more than a substitute for action. They are widely regarded as action.

Everyone remembers the story of The Emperor's New Clothes, I should note however that Hans Christian Andersen didn't write the sequel about what happened to that little boy and his family six months later when The Authorities could finally deal with them.

Slightly related, the Gambian proverb goes "Words are like bullets, once you release them you can't call them back.

It is said that a prophet is never recognized in his own country and the verdict was still out on if I was to become The Company's John the Baptist. I won't tempt fate and leave it to the historians to make that determination. In closing, I'll again turn to Belloc

It is always a relief to believe what is pleasant, but it is more important to believe what is true.

— Hilaire Belloc

Office Tales

I'd previously pointed to this juxtaposition, a survival guide to life in any workplace

Office life, office politics, the organization man, managing humans, the bad child's book of beasts

Soundtrack for this note

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