Thursday, December 23, 2021

Season of Migration

Refugees all, we in Africa are no strangers to dislocation, in many ways it is our close friend.

Bags and Stamps
Welcome, Dislocation, old friend, so nice to see you again Mister
Come on in, Struggle is over there, we were just fixing drinks
What will you have? Homeland was trying out the sangria earlier
How was it homie? Did it pass the test? Tell me, what do you think?

Really? Well we can't have you drinking something that's merely ordinary
Come, let's get you something more substantive, I have a special wine
Or are you thinking whisky at this hour? Tell me your bottom line
Shelter, back there yonder, got started on a vintage bottle already

Knowing him, when he gets to work on these things, you might be out of luck
That guy can hold his drink, he's probably making pilgrim's progress
What's this I'm hearing? Good god, the pandemic's got you all mixed up?
You've lost your sense of taste? And ginger beer is now your weakness?

Well I can accommodate you, my friend, I think - it takes all sorts
We have a Jamaican one around somewhere but, please, no buyer's remorse
Before you leave, let me serve you some palm wine, some akpeteshie
That legend, Redemption, thinks it's quite worthy of a speakeasy

You know the story behind that one, we got it when we were getting married
And scoping out caterers for the wedding banquet at the last minute
The Nigerian caterer gave it to us on the house, said we deserved it
We asked, "What about the liquor license?" And sighed, "Oh, it's no use.
It would really round out the menu, oh this is such a case of regret"
That guy, cracked his Yoruba smile, and replied, I'll never forget,
"These oyibo get so confused, we simply call it palm juice"

The tides picked you up again, fear not, you shall return to your land
Remember, the world is your port of call, everything is written in sand
Nostalgia said he'd show his face. That guy, he never answers his phone
He never makes our cooking sessions, he spends his time in the torrid zone

bags and things

Immigrant, a playlist


A cocktail hour playlist for this holiday party
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: March 21, 2021

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Ellipses

I first met my sister one Christmas Eve, I was about to reach my maturity
A long story, gaps, pain, and the ellipses that belie a longer history
Of such things are families made, what with the undercurrent of trauma
Still, that quarter century was tough to bridge between mother and daughter

We'd been talking over the months and now it was a family reunion
Feeling each other out, exchanging banalities, she was unassuming
The three of us in the Brent Cross flat, a typically cold English winter
Contra London's grey, we all wore the most godawful sweaters

We settled in with no wariness and just got on
Cool customers, we were nothing if not nonchalant
They stared at each other these proud African women
My aunt made it a fourth in our exiled quadrant

A meeting of minds, myself, aunt, sister, and mother
Exiled souls, from homelands and from each other
Four lonely Londoners now missing Nigeria and Ghana
Wondering how to write the script for tomorrow's chapter

The usual suspects came into play: respect, deference, shame, and matters of protocol
We found our way through the initial unease and established our new rituals
Not knowing what one should expect, our trajectories in life were not too dissimilar
Still it was disconcerting, in the moment, to experience the shock of the familiar

Crafting narratives, some of us for a living, we were all born storytellers
Truth and reconciliation, it was hard to tell who could top the other
We could each raise the stakes recounting close encounters
And mention the harrowing escapes that marked our identities
The stolen moments we now shared, the tale of the lost stories

We quickly forgot the hurt and settled into the comfort suites of teasing
Deflecting past slights with irony and dry humor, we practiced the art of easing
Still, the mannerisms were uncanny, genetics could not be denied
Fittingly, the first movie we watched together was Secrets and Lies

ghana artwork mother and child

Elliptical, a playlist


The soundtrack to this grace note comes courtesy of Meshell NdgegeOcello, purveyor of liquid soul and elliptical funk grooves.

I nominate this brief note for The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of Social Living. What paradise have we lost?


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Writing log: March 25, 2021

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Restructuring Activities

The blue bags were the detail that lingered and that you first noticed
As the security guards escorted the unfortunate souls out of the building
The royal blue of our corporate logo, not quite Ikea blue or Big Blue
Lovely plastic bags filled with personal belongings, photos, wages due

The rumours had been spreading for weeks, it was hard to get any work done
We'd all started to worry about bank balances and the lack of emergency funds
The sword of the corporate Damocles loomed large over our heads
Water cooler conversation circled uneasily around the shape of dread

Some started polishing LinkedIn profiles and resumes
Replying to the recruiters' emails, the curriculum vitae
Truth be told, it could have been you that day, it was a roll of the dice
You'd been on the other side previously, the experience wasn't very nice

A day later, in Skype a number of avatars had "Presence unknown" as their status
Next to the grey offline dot, that naming designation was appropriately callous
The faces of the wounded members of your tribe forcibly ejected into the unknown
The rest of you counted your blessings and continued working in the torrid zone

ghana must go versus ikea


The corporate communications were full of inspired euphemisms
Uneasy phrases that outlined the process behind these resource actions
The passive voice reigned supreme, in this agitation there were no actors
The dry prose never assigned clear responsibility, only fudge factors

The actions were ongoing, the separations were involuntary
This opacity about the recent events and their inevitability
It was all about "the changes that we've made", those were mandatory
"The decisions we've had to make", on the other hand, were necessary

Tough love was in our future, there could be no promises about tomorrow
Indeed we were to understand that management was tinged with sorrow
And the logistics were tricky, it takes weeks to layoff thousands
When you wanted to present a human face you had to make allowances

Give them a couple of weeks severance, and explain their options
The bottom line was, we had to put this behind us, it was time to move on
A wilful erasure of the cheeriness and all the previous certainties
The stage was set, we'd simply have to endure these restructuring activities

heavy lifting


In the aftermath of this round of layoffs, I don't quite know what possessed me
To raise my hand, and indeed, my voice at the all hands meeting with my query
I simply asked the smiling executives if they could give us any guarantees
That those who had so grossly misallocated capital in stock buybacks
Had now adopted the right strategy to put The Company on the right track

There was a stunned silence at my impertinence, who knew?
"That's a very interesting question, you're not holding back, are you?
What was your name again?", he chuckled, that's all she wrote
Uh oh, you and your big mouth, I guess they were taking notes

In the event, the answer he gave was as expected:
"Piffle, paffle, wiffle, waffle"
Said with enough empathy to leave everyone baffled
In the land of concern, we wouldn't feel neglected

"Does that answer your question?"
"Indeed, thank you sir, I've learned a great lesson"
Woe is me, I should have kept my mouth shut
My future prospects had just received a haircut

Come to think of it, I never got a raise after that outburst
Luckily they weren't vindictive, they didn't do their worst
I've had years to recover, I make a good living, I can't say that I'm bitter
These days I keep my rather mild critiques of modern day shell games to Twitter

south africa must stay and ghana must go

Restructuring Activities, a playlist


A soundtrack for this pink slip, I must admit I found it difficult to get beyond Gil Scott-Heron who captured this mournful moment with uncanny accuracy. Pieces of a man collected in blue bags.
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log. Concept: November 15 2018; March 25, 2021

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Dining Philosophers Problem

The dining philosophers problem is well known in computer science
Dealing with matters of access, it has analogues in our headlines
Humanity's curriculum involves many rituals and traditions
Perhaps, then, it's worth explaining the problem's formulation

The diners that are gathered here today are five in number
Imagine, if you will, your favorite group of philosophers
They are initially presented in a state of silence at the venue
Around a round table, hungry they are, for spaghetti is on the menu

The central conceit is that each philosopher must alternately think and eat
Implicit also is that they are vegetarians or vegans, for there is no meat
The rules of the social game adds the constraint of manners as the main course
That they can only dig into their spaghetti if they have both left and right forks

After a philosopher finishes eating, but before launching into thought,
They must put down both forks to make them available for others.
Forks, in this arrangement, can only be held by one philosopher at a time.
The problem's construction teaches that sharing is caring at mealtime

To add realism to the scenario, we can assume there is an unlimited supply of food
And that our philosophers can eat long past the point that would normally be good
With these core ingredients: philosophers, spaghetti, forks (but no knives)
The problem is meant to illustrate the challenges of living parallel lives

An utter conundrum, this problem when it was presented to me at university
That, while I could discern that it had applications in the study of concurrency,
The problem was going from this set of instructions to designing an architecture
Full disclosure, I damn near failed this course on algorithms and data structures

The enduring challenge, if you think about it, is how to avoid deadlock
The fear is of resource starvation such that the actors find themselves stuck
We want a world in which no philosopher will starve and continue forever
To eat and think deep thoughts; a metaphor, this immortal philosopher

The Last Philosophers

Timing is everything in the choreography of actors
Finding a strategy to manage this human infrastructure
The fundamental issue at hand, the term of art, is mutual exclusion
A stark concept, therein lies the difficulty with the algorithm

The conventional solution involves a resource hierarchy
I found it quite unfair because it clearly lacks neutrality
But it can be proven to work, if one heeds the instructions and laws
It applies an ordering to the distribution of shared resources

Another strategy that has been advanced is arbitration
This one I tried out, as I'm a firm believer in conversation
Once you designate a mediator, and open yourself up to abide by their resolution,
As the song goes, it takes behavior to get along, diplomacy can be the solution

The philosophical issues are many with middlemen, think of Caesar's tax collectors
And of the oligarchs and monopolists who insert themselves as toll collectors
Who are the designers of these systems in humanity's curriculum?
Who gets to make the rules? And who pays soul insurance premiums?

Game theory can come into play, think of the prisoner's dilemma
The shortest path to success might be to seize resources - state capture
Write the ruler's rules, and steal power like a conqueror
Rehearse a coup drill following the lead of many a dictator

I found that the problem had all the makings of a cautionary fable
Earlier, you might recall, I held my fire at that philosopher's table
Where rage, and its contemporary uses, were the bone of contention
'Twas decidedly, I'd explained, a case of normalcy prohibition

I had been thinking about this modernity of parallel lives
Where some have the great privilege of their insatiable appetites
A state of the world in which no progress is possible
We would do well to study the Mosquito Principle

equality rosewood park

See previously:

The Dining Philosophers Problem, a playlist


A soundtrack for this treatise, bookended by the great divas
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: March 28, 2021

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Panoply of Mistakes

Inadequate protection proved to be the golden rule
Turning the sanctuary of care homes into mortuaries
Meatpacking plants became the scene of betting pools
On the fate of frontline workers fighting penury

Essential meant expendable, they were an afterthought
And, as for survival checks, they were fiercely fought
Furlough schemes be damned, quick, get back to work
Eat out to help out, dereliction of duty was their watchword

The contrast was stark, for some, street life, eviction, and bankruptcy
For others, all manner of assistance, they called in the cavalry
It's quite obvious who the winners were, for them no expense was ever spared
The clear conflicts of interest on their no-bid contracts were never declared

Easy words: "I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost,
And of course," easy lies: "we truly did everything we could",
Badged with easy empathy: "it's hard to compute the sorrow
contained in" these "deaths, with many more likely to follow"

Easy insults: "I take full responsibility", even as I deceive
With easy deflection: "it would be almost impossible to believe"
That the country "has passed the grim milestone", so many lives lost
And of course, "I offer my deepest condolences" and these easy thoughts

sustainable caskets

After Mister Johnson, January 26 2021

Wrong, a playlist


A
soundtrack of unforced errors
Given the choice, they chose the wrong way. History will judge them harshly despite their fervent efforts at reputation scrubbing.

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: January 27, 2021

Thursday, November 18, 2021

A Taxonomy of Useful Idiots

Pondering a bestiary of useful idiots, a field guide to the species...

I once proposed a taxonomy of useful idiots: the ignorant, those who should know better, the reflexively tribal, and the professional opportunist. I have since recharacterized the mooted third category, the reflexively tribal, with a broader brush as the professional contrarian. The tribal intimation didn't fully capture the nuance that I sought, and the reflexivity I implied often overlapped with the contrarian impulse and with the actions of those who should know better. Not to mention that there was also the matter of intent. No, it wouldn't do; precision is needed in a hatchet job and I, for one, aim to deliver. Ah well, I've always been upfront that my brand of social anthropology was a work in progress. In any case, herewith some further musings...

To recap, here's the toli taxonomy of useful idiots:

  • the ignorant
  • those who should know better
  • the professional contrarian
  • the professional opportunist
Let's visualize this, in case you are that way inclined (forgive me Edward Tufte)

taxonomy of useful idiots

Useful idiots are a tribe that one encounters all too often in life. They cause a disturbance in the force, and no small disorder wherever they are found. They provoke anxiety and raise blood pressure with their confounding behavior. Their impact is particularly elevated in times of crisis, wars chief among them. During a pandemic, such as our covidious present, it can be a matter of public health and great urgency to be able to accurately identify these purveyors of grief. Prompt and targeted action is of the essence in order to blunt the impact of these merchants of chaos. We are all classifiers at heart, albeit we may not be good at it, but pattern matching is the human burden, it's what we do. It is worth investing the time and effort to understand the useful idiot, bear with me as I expound.

My poor man's Gartner quadrant lays out our populace of useful idiots plotting them against two axes: knowledge and intent. I hesitated in doing this as there is a fine line, of course, in discerning where candidates lie on a spectrum. How does one know for sure what someone knows or what their real motivation is? Mind reading is a skill lost to the ages - confiscated by the gods, humanity has to reach for heuristics. You don't have to reach to Hanlon's razor and "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Also we ignore The Basic Laws Of Human Stupidity at our peril. And, as we shall see, Carlo Cipolla's insight and the framing of his treatise on our species's stupidity is a key driver of our investigation. We'll take it as a given that, to the observer, overt demonstrations of ineptitude or dismay are hard to characterize. But we have to try anyway, it helps to know who you are dealing with.

The Ignorant


I have written on ignorance previously, launching off on its embodiment in the form of the incurious George W Bush. That affair was simply a matter of standing on the shoulder of giants; we all know that Hilaire Belloc should have the first and last word on ignorance.
There is not anything that can so suddenly flood the mind with shame as the conviction of ignorance, yet we are all ignorant of nearly everything there is to be known. Is it not wonderful, then, that we should be so sensitive upon the discovery of a fault which must of necessity be common to all, and that in its highest degree? The conviction of ignorance would not shame us thus if it were not for the public appreciation of our failure...
Belloc, in his opening salvo, lays out the well known terrain of uncertainty that the ignorant live in. Ignorance is a natural part of man's condition, indeed you don't have to harken back to the Garden of Eden to acknowledge that it is our default state. Further, ignorance is a social disease, one that stings the possessor when it is perceived by others. We are all striving simians not far removed from the savanna and the perception of fault, and potential ridicule, is a potent restraint. For ignorance to be identified, there must, of necessity, be the notion of shame.

Reading Belloc's insight, we can begin to see the outlines of a strategy for dealing with the challenge. Education is the standard remedy proposed for ignorance - call it applied knowledge as the antidote. Further insight here is based on understanding that shame, and the perception of discovery, are crucial in the working of ignorance. So long as there are vestiges of a shame culture, one might be able to counter the actions and effect of the ignorant useful idiot. The threat of revelation, and its karmic or reputational consequences, could be a potent inhibitor of the ignorant useful idiot.

The reverse of the coin is also obvious: societies long removed from the sway of a shame culture are acutely prone to the workings of useful idiots. Where scoundrels prosper freely, the useful idiot has firm ground on their side. Buyer beware.

Those Who Should Know Better


Those who should know better are a frustrating breed because they have tasted of the fruit of knowledge but it didn't resonate with them. Perhaps they thought it didn't apply to them, or worse, they assumed good faith of others. Whatever the reason, a common observation apropos those who should know better is that laziness, intellectual and otherwise, is their close companion. They often have their own narratives and idées fixes, their preferred view of reality, in other words. Those who should know better like their stories, and hold fast to them, however misconceived. They never heeded the call to trust but verify.

Viewed through an information theory lens, those who should know better have looked at the data pyramid repeatedly but are unable, or unwilling, to distill data into information, nor indeed, to translate experience into knowledge, let alone process it further. They are missing the machinery that goes under various names, wisdom and common sense, prime among them.

Those who should know better, however, can often be reached by advocacy, and be swayed to, in fact, know better. Sometimes a mugging by reality is all it takes - in the playground growing up, I have seen a few well-timed slaps sober up those who should know better. More generally though, one has to wait for events to take their course and to reveal the inevitable results of their wishful thinking coming to pass. "Experience is a brutal teacher," quoth C.S. Lewis, "But you learn. My God, you learn".

Revelations do occur, and road to Damascus incidents do happen. Consider the parade of useful idiots in the hard realist liberal crowd that have been lying low after their misbegotten advocacy of the Iraq war (or alternately their latter day shtick after foisting George W. Bush on us etc.). Pick your favorite mea culpa, for their number are legion. Now, mind you, if you were collateral damage to the Bush-Cheney misbegotten wars on the wrong target, you might rightly point out that there is no consolation to be had at the spectacle of someone who should know better belatedly realizing their mistake. It won't bring back the dead bodies, or the money squandered. And good luck locating the foregone prestige, call it a deadweight loss. There are slim pickings to be found in schadenfreude at those who should know better's comeuppance - their damage has already been done.

Still, the fact that there is a measure of self-awareness is a positive - lemonade out of lemons, as it were. It is always entertaining to see the moment when those who should know better realize that they have been used, or figuratively pimped out by the more cunning. The squirming and the attempt to reconcile themselves with the knowledge that they've been had, and might even be an object of scorn or ridicule.

Sidenote: ridicule cuts even deeper against those who should know better than against the ignorant, but for a different reason. The self image of those who should know better sees them operating at a higher status than the ignorant. To be cast in the same rank as the ignorant is quite damaging to the psyche of those who should know better. Shame, not just at the revelation of ignorance, but of the acknowledgement of deficiency. Those who should know better have the self regard of the infallible; the realization of their poor judgement and incompetence is a grievous wound.

Those who should know better are often framed as serious thinkers. In modern western politics, these smooth operators are often the sensible centrists, the clear eyed realists. They are liberal hawks, branded as manly and reluctant warriors. In the American polity, there are always second lives.

We have folk wisdom at our behest. "Once bitten, twice shy" is what we hope works, and a mantra we tend to chant in the direction of all and sundry, and especially towards those who should know better. Experimental research confirms that our efforts are mostly misplaced. The problem with those who should know better is that, sometimes, they have to have been bitten a half dozen times before the lesson sticks and sometimes the lesson is only half absorbed. Perhaps they are missing the shyness gene or they don't have the requisite memory cells. The frustration for others is that their condition presents as a case of wilful, laziness-induced amnesia, a groundhog day of failing to learn lessons.

If you look towards our literature, the narratives that are replete in human culture, there are any number of cautionary tales, fables and proverbs that come into play. My own favorite saying is that "it is unwise to have gentlemen's agreements with people who aren't gentlemen". Such a statement would be lost on those who should know better. They might nod their heads, and give the impression that they have assimilated the information, but by the time the conversation has ended, their mind is a blank slate.

Different priorities might be at work in the psyche of those who should know better. W.H. Auden said it best that "Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing." Such is human Archaeology. We mistakenly place a premium on knowledge, and on wringing one's hand at the ignorant or those who should know better. Tsk-tsking the Fox News contingent or the low information imbiber won't get you far. We should simply acknowledge that there are many who simply view news as entertainment and politics as theater; it is no wonder they are wont to dismiss knowledge.

Frequency Distribution


The frequency distribution of our tribe of trouble manufacturers is interesting. I assert, through empirical and hard-worn experience, that the vast majority of useful idiots fall into the first two categories, the ignorant, and those who should know better. This is heartening because, as I've suggested, there might be strategies to mitigate their effects if not diminish their numbers.

Sidebar: Strategies For Dealing With Useful Idiots


An interim look at a few of the strategies we've outlined for dealing with useful idiots
  • education
  • shaming
  • ridicule
  • fear
  • experience
With this portfolio in our toolkit, one can hope a multipronged approach can temper the damage, even as all of these have limitations.

If you emphasize the importance of the axis of knowledge, then you can think about dealing with useful idiots as a matter of low information (per the ignorant) or as a failure at information processing (per those who should know better).

It helps to consult the texture of knowledge. The Rumsfeld Taxonomy of knowledge is one framework that an earlier, previously destructive Donald laid out (known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns). We'll augment it with a fourth category, the "unknown knowns", the subconscioius biases and blind spots that, tellingly, the erstwhile Secretary of Defense omitted from his taxonomy.

I would have thought that the lesson was that the unknowns by definition are unknowable and, if you go ahead, following the Rumsfeld example, and discount even the knowns, you end up traveling in a lightly-armored Humvee on the road from Baghdad airport with a convoy of outsourced mercenaries. Good luck on that front.
Mate Masie, the Adinkra symbol from the Akan saying about knowledge, wisdom and prudence, "Nyansa bon mu ne mate masie", is literally rendered in English as "I have heard and kept it". This points to the importance of comprehension, acquisition and retention in the workings of knowledge. Weaknesses on any of these fronts can undermine our strategic efforts against the useful idiots.

mate masie

Baltasar Gracián writing in 1647 in The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, doesn't give much comfort about the odds of success.
There are many, however, who don't know that they don't know, and others who think they know, but don't. Stupidity's faults are incurable, for since the ignorant don't know what they are, they don't search for what they lack. Some individuals would be wise if they didn't believe that they already were. Given all this, although oracles of good sense are rare, they sit idle, because nobody consults them.
The ignorant and those who know better suffer no lasting downside; their failings are all too human. Nudging, and any of our other approaches, can provide only minor palliative relief.

On etymology, William Safire once investigated the provenance of the useful idiots of the west saying, the saying oft-attributed to Lenin - per Paul Boller, he never said it. We may not have a clear attribution but we all clearly know their effect. Useful idiots confuse the issue, they divert attention, they waste everyone's time. It is sad that the term is seen to be derogatory since it is merely descriptive and, shorn of value judgement, very helpful in classification.

Dealing with useful idiots is exhausting like all labour, but it is labour nevertheless. Thankless it may be, but it is best to consider our engagements with useful idiots as a tax on society, and we all know that we should render unto Caesar... It takes lots of behavior to get along as we know, social living is the best.

The Professionals


These categories of useful idiocy are fluid. People can move around and even leave the plane of useful idiocy using some of the approaches I've outlined. Which leaves the last two categories, both professional and, well, both useful idiots: I am referring of course to the professional contrarian and the professional opportunist. Let's take a look again at our taxonomy to refresh our memory.

taxonomy of useful idiots

The professionals, the professional contrarian and the professional opportunist, are orthogonal to the ignorant and those who know better. They are quite simply a breed apart. Consider them the superspreaders of the useful idiocy contingent.

Let's introduce a few terms and definitions that I often use interchangably as shorthand to these professionals: gremlins and parasites. Longtime readers will be familiar with this toli monger's jargon but one has been advised to expand one's audience. I'll adopt the Vox Optima explanatory, ostensibly-neutral tone and explain as I go along. So. Gremlins and parasites, clickbait for profit.

Parasites map easily to professional contrarians, whereas professional opportunists are often said to be gremlins. These professionals navigate the axis of intent as they practice their brand of useful idiocy.

The Professional Contrarian


The professional contrarian, call him or her Captain Obvious, is a strange beast, a consumuate purveyor of shrink-wrapped profundity. Now contrarianism per se is an honorable tradition in human society. We all celebrate those iconoclasts brave enough to pierce the groupthink bubbles we encounter in daily life. Intellectually, we all aspire to be the brave thinker who illuminates home truths, and disdains society's shibboleths. Intellectual dissent is often sorely needed in life especially as conventional wisdom is often anything but. And therein lies society's dilemma with the professional contrarian, for here is someone whose pursuit of an ostensibly laudable goal, crosses over into the realm of useful idiocy.

Sidenote: while Captain Obvious has traditionally been seen as a man, useful idiocy is one area on human life where there is gender parity, there is no need for affirmative action when it comes to the contrarian impulse.

There's a special category in the blogs I follow that I label as the professional contrarian. I think I have about 150 or so in that tribe as I deliberately seek out diversity in my reading. I'll only say that it makes for hard reading in times of crisis. Yet still I read, the exposure serves as a kind of strengthening of one's biome.

The behaviour of professional contrarians is all too familiar however. All complex ecosystems have parasites. Humanity has long experience with them. Psychologically though, there is no complexity, a parasite is a parasite and simply seeks to reproduce. Parasites are compelled to be parasitic, it is simply what they do.

On any given day, Captain Obvious wakes up, assesses a situation, finds the appropriate Slatepitch in keeping with the contrarian mode of operation, launches it, and keeps going looking for the next situation. Intent is an afterthought. Leveraging those moments when there is a real bounty of attention on one's contrarianism is a welcome, but not necessary, fringe benefit for the professional contrarian.

Reading the professional contrarian is hard at the best of times. They aim to unsettle, and you can almost visualize the smug smile when they hit send and wait for the uproar. The self affirmation they derive is independent of the issue on which they are expounding, it's narcissism distilled to its very essence. And it is this indifference that frustrates when they cross that thin line and turn into useful idiots. It's such a porous boundary really and it's the unthinking reflexivity of their contrarianism that irks.

The usual strategies do little to counter the workings of the professional contrarian. Pointing out the baleful effect of their actions doesn't sensitize them, nor indeed does appealing to their better senses since their actions are more instinctive, and they present as a clean slate of useful idiocy. Their only pressure point is a fear of being branded whiners, ergo a modified and highly specific form of the ridicule mode of attack. Dan Davies authored his lengthy Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don't whine. That is all as a kind of cautionary tale about dealing with professional contrarians. The downside is that being consumate professionals, the effect of the crybaby jab is temporary, and business as usual is resumed in short order. Unsatisfactory as it may be, palliative relief is the only remedy to the professional contrarian.

The Professional Opportunist


Which brings us to the professional opportunist, the gremlins in our taxonomy of useful idiots. Professional opportunists are a singular and contrary breed but should be considered distinct from garden variety contrarians. As I've suggested, the professional opportunist is a high functionning operator embued with both knowledge and intent, their roving grounds of dismay lie in the most dangerous quadrant in our taxonomy. A few aphorisms on useful idiots to set the stage:

The utility function of a useful idiot is at its highest in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.

Most of the time society proceeds without regard to the useful idiot, limping along with their brand of collateral damage. Times of crisis are where the professional opportunist's impact is most spectacular and confounding.

Trend surfing alacrity is the professional opportunist's strategy and the professional contrarian's opportunity.

Was it Stalin who talked of useful idiots? They always seem to materialize before and during wars.

Servants to power, we are all striving simians on the savannah at heart, looking to Alpha authority.

Apologists for war (think Iraq, think War on Terror) and apologists for unfettered capitalism have had a rough start to this century.

Most useful idiots lie low when things go awry. That, paradoxically, is the only time they are of any interest.

Professional opportunists are singular gremlins in human society and deserve close study. Sadly, we simply shake our heads at the spectacle

The professional opportunist knows no shame and depends on our short attention span. Hey! Look over there...

I looked.

Most professional opportunists escape scrutiny and scorn because there's always a core of past competence that one can point to.

The past competence is what makes the professional opportunist such a dangerous and confounding operator. Fluency born of knowledge and wilfulness in intent are a potent combination.

Stirling Newberry posited a theorem about opportunism a while back that I characterized as a Newberry's Spectrum of Banality. It's an equation oft-neglected by political scientists. Let's solve for X by restating the original formal statement:
X's writing represents the just before banal of the center left in the US. This is not to say that X is stupid, merely that by the time he writes something, there is a vast "The End" spray painted on the wall. He says something just as it is about to become common knowledge.
I have one quibble with the original formula, namely that it suggests that X is a man - not a bad assumption since the patriarchy is known to pontificate - indeed all pontifs have been male to date. For full generality, however, we should acknowledge equal opportunity blowhardiness of the professional opportunist.

Sidenote: the canonical description pointed to Jacob Weisberg, the original Slatepitch Siren, but it was applied in short order to Joe Klein (An Administration's Epic Collapse April 2007), Fred Kaplan (The End of American Leadership April 2020), and say William Saletan (The Trump Pandemic August 2020). Just before banality is the fingerprint of the professional opportunist as they scent blood in the water, and the opportunity to gain attention and wreak their brand of damage.

In Carlo Cipolla's discussion of the basic laws of stupidity (nicely illustrated incidentally), and the fifth basic law especially, he has this telling description that underlines why one can never underestimate stupidity and the damage it can cause. Echoes of Baltasar Gracián:
...the bandits with overtones of stupidity... and the helpless with overtones of stupidity... manage to add losses to those caused by stupid people thus enhancing the nefarious destructive power of the latter group

Trailblazers of the Trade Winds


Now I hear you, my Gartner quadrant of useful idiots is unsatisfactory, for one it ascribes a lower amount of intent, and, indeed, knowledge to the professional contrarian when we all know just how damaging, pernicious and indeed malevolent they can be. To take an example, the professional contrarian spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic has probably caused more deaths and heartache that one can stand.

The professional contrarians have had a field day arguing against control measures, disputing mandates, highlighting individual choice, declaiming the role of public health interventions and so forth in mitigating the effects of the pandemic. Ascribing them a lower level of intent might auger a reduction of blame from some viewpoints, letting them off the hook, as it were.

The professional opportunist, armed with the same uncertainty in the science, also caused spectacular damage. The fact that the professional opportunist was more discerning in approach, and often exquisitly timed his intervention is perhaps a subtle distinction that we shouldn't dwell on.

Most people would dismiss this suggestion of a distinction between the two, and simply brand both as useful idiots. Especially in a time of crisis, the damage they did was equally pernicious, the wilful distractions they raised were equally frustrating. Revolutionary justice would probably mete out the guillotine to both without discrimination.

And yet, when confronted, one would encounter genuine bewilderment from the professional contrarian. "I was simply making a good faith case... There are shades of grey on the issue... Just asking questions...". The professional opportunist would be momentarily quiet when called out - the professional opportunist doesn't care about the argument that was proffered, or its merits, but, being skilled in the ways of evasion, will simply move to a new topic and often seek new grounds to continue punching down and sucking attention.

All crises have a clarifying effect. The first 18 months of these covidious times have been on object lesson on the workings of the useful idiot in action. Those mouthpieces who had been silenced by the global narrative pause and reduced to squares on a Zoom conference were not doing well with this democratization of attention, this era when everyone has been equally adrift and searching for meaning when it is the virus that sets the timeline. It has been interesting to watch prior narratives slowly reassert themselves in the new normalcy. I don't begrudge the old faithful talking heads their game - it's all in the game, but a game it is, especially for the professionals.

Take the Iraq war, New York Times editor Bill Keller belatedly nominated himself in the useful idiot pantheon along with Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, George Packer, Jeffrey Goldberg, Richard Cohen, Andrew Sullivan, Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Kenneth Pollack and Judith Miller. Tellingly, there were no resignations tended or ashes and sackcloths rended.

Tony Judt helpfully summarized the lot as Bush's useful idiots in cataloging their collateral damage. I would add Michael Ignatieff to the pot but we are spoilt for choice with world historic useful idiocy with world historic consequences in blood and sin.

Mind you, many of this lot are still pontificating years later, they never paid a reputational price for being a useful idiot in that instance, and that, paradoxically, is one of the fringe benefits of the condition. At best, one might expect a mea culpa delivered grudgingly and belatedly, and with suitable hedging and rationalizations; the spectacle and perspective is turned towards the sadly, tragically mistaken useful idiot himself rather than the damage they encouraged, or fostered. Being a professional contrarian or opportunist gives you a free pass in the buyer's remorse stakes, sorry is optional.

A Game of Sorts


Too often I'm primed for a reflexive savaging of someone who should obviously know better, and then I pause and wonder if I'm being baited. The boundary between the useful idiot and the troll is very porous. At such moments of reflection in recent times, I turn to my taxonomy for guidance as I weigh the available evidence. Oftentimes I've found it more satisfying to try to identify a specimen in the wild with my nascent field guide than to go further, and engage with them. The professionals especially can be black holes of attention, whether negative of positive. Contra that expense of energy, it is truly fun to suddenly realize that you've been been dealing a specific subtype of these trailblazers of the trade winds.

And so I'll end with a parlour game, Dear Reader. Gather up a few names of those who have left you perplexed and confounded with their behavior in recent times. Everybody has at least a half dozen useful idiots in their life. You can even make it exciting, add a time limit for deliberation, have fun throwing out a few names of candidates. Once gathered, shuffle your names in a pot and pick one. Where would you place them in our taxonomy? The objective of the game is to correctly identify the genus of our confounder-in-chief.

Better yet, you can add some gamification to the process, or tap into the wisdom of the crowds as a group endeavor. Pick teams after dinner (drinks optional), and try to guess what your partner would have thought, or what a gameshow audience would have thought. 60 percent of respondents identified Buck Blowhard as a professional opportunist, Milly Noxious, on the other hand, was fully branded as ignorant by 90 percent of the audience. Cecil Showboat the III won the professional contrarian stakes by fully 75 percent of the public. And so forth.

Feel free to print out our Magic Taxonomy of Useful Idiots ™. You can throw darts if it helps, here's the larger version if you'd like to print it out. There are any number of configurations, rules and regulations that one can come up with. I'm certainly willing to discuss licensing any games based on the concept. The floor is open.

When you find yourself thinking about arguing about the latest David Brooks column, pick up the taxonomy and start to reason about where to place him. Opportunist or not? There's an app for that. Of such things are dating apps made. And, sure, a tweet about Bret Stephens might elicit the crybaby-whiner signal indicator of wounded amour propre of the professional contrarian, but it's more satisfying to behold the workings of his shell game.

Instead of writing long screeds about The Pandemic's Wrongest Man, Alex Berenson, ask yourself where he lies on the axis of intent and knowledge, and whether there has been any evolution over the past year, say from the merely ignorant to the professional opportunist camp. Observers are worried.

If you think about the Trump years, perhaps you might start with James Comey. Does the evidence make him someone who should know better? Or does the smug, self-satisfied look on his face, and the subsequent op-eds and interventions, warrant labeling him as a professional contrarian? Is the tell, his reaction to being rightly branded as a whiner for plunging humanity into peril by handing an election to the Donald?

Larry Summers, for example, has been doing a rollicking good rehearsal for our taxonomy in recent years as his intellectual influence in the halls of power has waned. Is he existentially contrarian, always speaking truth to power as perhaps his immaculate self image as the smartest man in the room might auger? Or should we regard the erstwhile President of my alma mater as merely naive, someone who should know better? Or is his shtick more purposeful, more in the vein of the professional opportunist? Inquiring minds want to know.

And so forth.

You're not going to prevent the useful idiot from doing their thing but, in the interim, you might as well have some fun, and apply our field guide, our taxonomy of useful idiots.

I'll start you off with one name: Thomas Friedman

(ducks)

Only posterity is unkind to the man of conventional wisdom, and all posterity does is bury him in a blanket of neglect

John Kenneth Galbraith

Foolish, a playlist


As is my custom, here's a soundtrack for this note, musical musing on all things foolish. Suggestions welcome. ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

This note is part of the Shell Games suite.

The first part considered Shame Cultures, while the second took a look at The Skeptic's Credo.

Next: Buyer's Remorse

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Writing log. Concept: October 13, 2014, Poor man's graphics: April 15 2020, May 17, 2021

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Land of Concern

The urban griots in their wisdom kept things simple
The virtue of a simple question: what's going on?
Or alternately, some pithy advice: check out your mind
They'd sound the warning that change would not be televised

Early to despair, they recognized the nature of the emergency
And how difficult it would be to shake the audience from complacency
For most would rather look firmly backwards and embrace nostalgia
Or anaesthetize themselves with cocktails of selective amnesia

They spoke with the urgency of those familiar with the shape of dread
A visceral reaction in our grief houses in the aftermath of bloodshed
The torrid zone presented as fait accompli so many dark matters
Best, in light of this, to attempt to forestall disaster

To the urban griot as to the physician, there's a duty of care
Felt all too keenly this compulsion as a moral cross to bear
Heed the message from your leader and first do no harm
The imperative, nay the onus, is on you to raise the alarm

Scout's honor, in trying times they'd say people get ready
Or go for the aspirational, someday we'll all be free
Long before this community reaches the point of no return
Such is the survival strategy for life in a land of concern

kagyah tree card

Land of Concern, a playlist


For this soundtrack we head to the griots. Listen up. There are any number of remixes of Salif Keita and the great Oumou Sangare to round out the playlist.

Illustration by Peter Addae-Kagyah

This meditation is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: March 21, 2021

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Clinical Dwarfs

The lineup of Zimbabwe's football team includes Divine, Talent, Teenage and Knowledge. Marvelous is a substitute, and their coach is Sunday.
The Ewe and Akan of Ghana have great names too, full of vim and wonder. Names are said to give protection and delight in our traditions. See for yourself, I recorded a transcript of the climax of Saturday's Premier League match of WAFA versus Ebusua Dwarfs at Sogakope Stadium...

Match Highlights


Thy Will Be Done passes the ball to Your Cause Is Just who dribbles past No Adversity
And, this is inspired, he then sets up Troubles May Follow You who gets ready to shoot
Oh! foiled at the last minute by God Is Good. Goodness, that was a missed opportunity.
Jealous, on the other side is screaming, he was wide open facing an empty goal

Still, a wonderful last minute tackle there by God Is Good, world class
He had run back from just past the halfway line, streaming like a tornado
What? A full sixty yards down the pitch to save the day, the pocket dynamo
Anyway, Peace recovers calmly and gathers Chastity for the counterattack

Correction, it was rather Charity. They do look alike those two midfielders
Charity lifts his head, spots Love making a run and, with the outside of the foot,
Unleashes a devastating through ball, it simply cuts through WAFA's defence
Runs right past Wisdom and the straining brothers, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego

Love collects with one touch on the sideline, beautifully done, what skill
He then lobs it diagonally, lofts it with a wicked swerve across the area
The half volley (was it?) finds the running Sword unmarked in the penalty spot
Sword's diving header is in the back of the net before anyone can react

Strange was helpless there, there was absolutely nothing he could do
Stranded on his goal line. That was brilliant, end to end stuff.
Just twenty seconds on from trouble and it's a goal. And what a goal.
A clinical finish. The game is on with just a quarter hour to go.

The captain, Wisdom, is furious and bellows at his teammates to not lose faith
WAFA must now seek an equalizer. Oh well, live by the sword, die by the Sword.


ghana celebration

ghana road to germany 2006

ghana celebration

Soundtrack for this note


The above was just an excuse to highlight one of my favorite songs, Dynamos vs. Tornados by Zimbabwe's Real Sounds. The sounds of the football match commentary rendered against the background of an infectious soukous groove never gets old. It's quite unlike anything I'd ever heard, striking in its inventiveness. The bonhomie and cameraderie of our sports. What paradise have we lost?

ghana celebration

...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log. Concept: June 28, 2019; Written: March 28, 2021

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

What Paradise Have We Lost? (Age of Innocence Edition)

"Mommy?", her eyes twinkled with a mischievous smile,
"Were you born in the last century?"
Promptly disarmed, we waited to discern her purpose
To learn what aspect she would query about our new normalcy
In the event, she just giggled, she merely thought being old was funny
Thankfully, despite the upheaval, she hasn't lost her child's pose

This wasn't the moment to bring up our fraught modernity
Albeit there is reason enough as this pandemic stands
It was a half formed thought but she could have pursued any number of strands
In prior times, we would have spent the afternoon at the public libraries
Those venues now closed that are the stuff of wist and former memories
So many idle pleasures denied, what paradise have we lost?

...

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
You know who's getting to be such a bore
The good doctor Walensky
That new CDC Director
Quite unlike her predecessor
Keeps saying that we need to mask up
And that restaurants should restrict capacity
Contra wishful thinking, a touch of reality
She seems to know what's in store

creek

Soundtrack for this note


Innocent by Alexander O'Neal

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: March 25, 2021

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Masks of Civility

Masks of civility were our usual garments
Even as we boiled silently with rage
The understanding was that this healing process
Would allow those others to turn the page
A lifetime of turning the other cheek had rendered us quiescent
Still, it was altogether unbearable, this internal displacement

In this liminal zone, we lived strange days of fiction
Weary travelers in a land of contradiction
To expose the molten core of reinforced steel would betray our purpose
The arc of providence, historians said, would surely bend towards our shores

Our national anthem lifted every voice against the strife
We played the rhythm of loss badly for our kind of life
We were close companions of the shape of dread
Who sang I can't breathe, the chant of the living dead

Tracing its contours like connoisseurs of anticipation
The country's dream was a hollow promise, empty marketing
The mantra goes the customer is always right, of course
Meanwhile, you get what you pay for, there's no buyer's remorse

The knives are out, they aren't even bothering to hide their intent
They're coming for us with everything they've got in their rearguard action
The fig leaves of due process were revealed as decorative nipple pasties
Functional, yet entirely ornamental, their bosom's virtue exposed freely

They parade around the poles of propriety as they strip rights and tease
Unvarnished power grabs their sordid maneuvers as befits back room sleaze
The cynicism of state capture revealed in their state of undress
Squalid encounters with the long coat contingent, expect nothing less

In practice when no preemptive measures can be afforded,
The bearer is denied the privilege of rage
This normalcy prohibition leaves us bereft and misdirected
Consigned perpetually to post-facto outrage

Traverse minefields of hurt feelings and cultural sensitivity
The slate of unease is always wiped clean for the loud minority
Thus our usual reliance on truth and reconciliation is misplaced
Masks of civility are the province of the internally displaced

masks from Maame

Masquerade a playlist


A soundtrack to deflect attention from this note. Timing is everything
Observers are worried

See also: Normalcy Prohibition

This internal displacement is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: March 13, 2021