Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Chinese Ambassador

She'd normally do this kind of thing on her own
But fortunately I was back in Ghana visiting home
At the appointed time, we were scheduled to have dinner
And so off we went to meet the Chinese Ambassador

I didn't feel bound by the Chatham House rules, those we could surely ignore
For, indeed, neither I nor my mum were part of the diplomatic corps
The invitation was an opportunity for the Ambassador to meet and greet
And pick her brain, conversing in a setting that was quite intimate

The staff had done impeccable opposition research on my mother
But my very presence (improvised and unadvertised) was an X factor
That occasionally threw the Ambassador for a loop that was hard to measure
Like when I harrumphed, and made a point about the terms of my company's joint venture

Who was this Young Turk irreverently pointing out inconvenient truths
While quietly sipping his second glass of pineapple juice?
Who readily dug in to the more exotic fare, not your average dim sun
And mentioned the village of the chef of his favorite Chinatown restaurant

I'll admit, it was a lark, I was being provocative, it was indubitable
To see whether I could pierce the mask of the normally inscrutable
But there was a larger point, I suppose, we are a proud people
With a self confidence that can only abide being treated as equals

To his credit, the years of diplomatic training were so ingrained
That the Ambassador never came close to breaking the veil
He so deftly brought the conversation back onto his preferred topic
That I almost started to applaud his mastery of the arts diplomatic

The rest I'll leave to the mist of memory
Some details linger, the tea was legendary
The Ambassador's pragmatism about the fraught nature of the great game
And his respect for the small players who still beheld a culture of shame

The recognition of the ongoing perils of galamsey
Short term profiteering causing long term dismay
"But those kinds of things are private actions, not public policy, as you well know"
I couldn't resist the zinger: "It takes two to do the corruption tango"

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, that I must concede
This was very far from a symphony of deceit
An invitation to visit the motherland was duly extended to my mother
At the end of the evening, this lovely dinner with the Chinese Ambassador

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

Kofi Abrefa Busia
hot summer by amos amit

The Chinese Ambassador, a playlist

A soundtrack for this embassy affair. We should all learn Chinese. (spotify version) ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log: May 5, 2021

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Self Portrait In Verse

When asked what I do for a living, I tend to lead with
"Truth be told, I'm really just a failed pineapple farmer"
When pressed, I then add that the bio reads "Technologist,
Omnivorous reader, sometime writer, and music lover"

The leading volley normally never fails to disarm
It leaves an opening, and then I can turn on the charm
It softens me up, this mix of false modesty and imperfection
I'm a connoisseur of the strange architecture of misdirection

The backup option too, while accurate, is a diversion
It tells its own story but adds to the confusion
Truth be told (again), I favor words as protection
Fugitive glimpses of the self, the art of omission

The Akan conception of self will get invoked
Even if most of my life, I've been an exiled soul
But some are very keen on the curriculum vitae
Or that American innovation, the resume


I write books of toli covering life in the torrid zone
Occasionally self referential, one hopes they can stand alone
Densely linked manifestations of hypertext dreams
Focusing on small things, dark matters, and whimsy

Ask not what I do, but focus on what I write
Ask not what I hate, I only know what irks me
Ask not what I love, but behold what I praise
The normalcy project is what I try to navigate

These words are, again, a diversion from the heart of the matter
I'm a man of the hills, a word fugitive that's hard to capture
While these days, you'll find me tending to my pandemic garden
I'm happiest reading a book, not too far from Aburi Gardens

Something whimsical by way of Hilaire Belloc
Or Caribbean, say Zee Edgell or Derek Walcott
Some biting satire, think Evelyn Waugh or Saki
Kwesi Brew for soul insurance or Chinua Achebe

Perhaps some afrofuturist young turk, you know the names, but nothing too dark
I'm a sucker for genre pieces by Octavia Butler and Richard Stark
Or James Ellroy, give me American Tabloid, here's to bad men
Indiscriminate, really, so long as the writer knows how to wield the pen

And there'll be music, my enthusiasms are well known
The urban griot soundtrack: soul and jazz with funk undertones
The blues feature, all the African genres, and hip hop
Gospel too, basically all who use music as a weapon

Academia is long in the rear view mirror
I saw more than enough of that life from my father
The Wife, a historian, has access to a great university library
I live as an omnivorous reader and cause good trouble dispensing toli

And that's the natural extent of my ambition
To luxuriate in the safe harbor of deflection
That while I might present as chief toli monger
I'm really just a failed pineapple farmer

Aburi house view

Chief Toli Monger, a playlist

A self portrait in music. It coheres for me but your mileage might vary. We start and finish with Burning Spear's Man in the Hills album, the maroon soundtrack. (spotify version)


Timing is everything
Observers are worried

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log: May 4, 2021

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Opacity and Revelation

There's a Akan proverb about knowledge that defines it
In a phrase roughly translated as "I have heard and kept it"
In our iconography, this is rendered as Mate Masie
The Adinkra symbol at the heart of Akan identity

Of the symbol, there are many different variations
It's a testament to our propensity for invention
That the designs proliferate among goldsmiths and jewelers
(For we of the Gold Coast appreciate both bling and philosophers)

Our conception of self involves the love of learning
We behold the world and cherish understanding
A respect for tradition and the surety it extends
And a studied regard for observed competence

It is said that knowledge, wisdom and prudence are the themes
At least those account for most of the conventional readings
The traditional focus is on acquisition, comprehension, and retention
But I prefer the other takes: disclosure, opacity and revelation

If I have learned something and retained it,
If doesn't follow that I should disclose it
The tension exists, on the one hand, between transparency and revelation
And, on the other hand, between concealment and evasion

So we have traditions of keeping knowledge close to one's chest
And there's opacity about how things get done, or the basis of knowledge
The through lines in our culture favor black boxes and trade secrecy
The alienation of labour from capital; what, after all, is property?

The longstanding stereotype the British beheld
   to those they termed oriental
Would be well repurposed to the Akan tradition
   which favors being inscrutable
The colonists would find it difficult dealing with the Ashantis,
   for they were prickly
As they heeded the proverb:
   Just because a lizard nods its head doesn't mean it's happy

In our modern world, there is a blurring of consumption and production
And an often fraught balancing of control against participation
Whenever I learn something and share it, the process reifies curation
At scale, we distill historical and institutional memory through conversation

Still waters run deep, appearances are deceptive
The metaphors suggest a challenging perspective
Short of a level field, on what basis do we fight life's competition?
He who controls knowledge navigates opacity and revelation

The sentence moved the Ashantis very visibly. Usually it is etiquette with them to receive all news, of whatever description, in the gravest and most unmoved indifference.

— The Downfall of Prempeh by Major-General Robert Baden-Powell (1896)

Without some dissimulation no business can be carried on at all.

— Philip Stanhope (1749)

The Ashantis had so completely succeeded in blinding the authorities to their real intentions that Colonel Harley was even now disinclined to believe that an Ashanti army had really entered the Protectorate, and... wasted valuable time

— A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti by W. Walton Claridge 1915

mate masie

"Nyansa bon mu ne mate masie" (I have heard and kept it)

After a conversation between John Leeke and Jon Udell about craft and sharing knowledge in the internet age.

Knowledge, a playlist

I give you a playlist of mostly hip hop, mathematics and street philosophy, diving into poor righteous teachers and the like. More than four hours of often incendiary and political messages about knowledge, ignorance, power and control. Pump your fist. (spotify version)


Timing is everything
Observers are worried

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log: Concept December 1, 2008; May 4, 2021

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Shady (or The Lottery Ticket)

Can someone explain this grift? I'm quite puzzled. So... Well, let me start at the beginning... Sunday afternoon at loose ends and needing to escape the pandemic and getting depressed at America gearing up to vote (again) for depraved indifference, I thought I'd go buy a Powerball ticket...

Now I'm an engineer, a devotee of Bayesian thinking, I weigh probabilities on almost every decision I make, risk averse is my middle name. Let alone the cautious immigrant, protestant/Quaker influence. So this business about gambling (even with a billion dollar jackpot) was a big step.

Earlier, I'd been discussing lotteries, gambling, and addiction with The 11 year old, pointing out that I was more likely to be struck by lightning walking to buy a lottery ticket than to win, that most saw lotteries as a tax on poor people or the statistically challenged etc.

I'd pointed out that what most people gain from playing the lottery is the psychic benefit of imagining what they would do if they won. Two dollars for a fantasy of affluence is cheaper than dinner and a movie (pandemic permitting) or a montly subscription for a Netflix and chill.

She'd heard all the cautionary tales of substance abuse, addiction and obsession - the black sheep of the family. She'd heard how my second semester at Harvard was almost derailed by those three weeks bingeing on Tetris (of all things) so that I immediately uninstall any games on any device I own.

The 11 year old was unconvinced, she knows about obsession. "Just don't go overboard, Daddy. Maybe just buy a couple of tickets". She also made me agree that I should share any winnings with her and her brother. This one is actually interested in money.

The only time I've won a game of chance was 10 pounds at the lottery in England in 2012, just before the Olympics. That was the trip where Theresa May's hostile environment welcomed me by withdrawing my residency to Her Majesty's lands. Call it My Windrush (or Indefinite Leave to Remain).

Tell a lie, I did also win the Green Card lottery in 1995 - the first time I applied. And the first (and only) time that bureaucracy had ever tilted in my direction.

Normally I am fated to run into a Never Never Man. Sigh...

Anyway, my US residency and the 10 pounds I had won were the consolation prizes when I returned from that disastrous trip to London. I wasn't deported, but I'd have to be dealing with lawyers to contest and regain my UK residency. My animus towards Theresa May is rather personal...

Incidentally, IBM's lawyers helped expedite my naturalization and I was able to submit the paperwork just days before the first Gingrich Federal government shutdown. Thank you Clinton-Gore for keeping things moving. Those 1995-1996 shutdowns really caused upheaval and backlogs.

My salary increased by $30,000 that year. A commentary on just how exploitative the H-1 visa process is. Much as I'd like to think that IBM thought I was a stellar employee, I know that the salary adjustment was a fraction of the money they'd save on legal fees for processing an H-1 visa

Anyway... I walked down to our local corner store. Four years in the neighborhood and I've never entered the place. The Wife had warned me off in the early days. Their stock was stale, rancid even, the one time she'd bought some bananas, "They were rotten!".

But mostly it's the corner that's the issue. We've been doing the African gentrification of East Austin but that pocket is the last holdout of the bad days. I guess you'd say it's an active scene. Not quite Hamsterdam, but it's not wholesome. If there is still a drug scene, it's around there.

The South East Asian lady behind the counter looked at me with jaded but anthropological interest - wearing a KN94 mask in these times seems to be a cultural signifier. The Grand Reopening of Texas was in May 2020.

I asked whether they sold lottery tickets, and asked for $20 worth of Powerball tickets - I haven't used cash since March 2020, so the bill that I pulled from my wallet looked quite the worse for wear. Dusty, but I plopped it down on the counter with alacrity. You have to look confident.

Eyebrows raised at the layers of pocket lint on the bill, she moved to the lottery machine. And then the puzzle starts. I expected a 30 second transaction. Press to select Powerball, press 2, press 0, press Enter ($20). Press Print to print the ticket.

Instead it sounded like a old dot-matrix printer was at work, and it was going on for an eternity it seemed. She kept punching numbers and she kept printing. What gives?

Anyway after a good 3 minutes she walked back brandishing a stack of tickets. Okay I thought, maybe it was an older machine and she couldn't print all the tickets on one slip. Still, it was a little suspect.

She then proceeded to count out the tickets ostentatiously. 1, 2... to 10. Handed the 10 tickets to me, and pocketed the other 3 at the bottom of the pile. She smiled and turned to the movie she was watching (a Bollywood joint).

"Thank you ma'am. Have a good day".

So as I walked out and took off my mask, I started to wonder about the nature of the grift that was being perpetrated here. I first checked that I indeed had my 10 tickets. I satisfied myself that I wasn't being directly stiffed but I felt used somehow - dirty, unclean.

Was she stiffing the lottery company? And how did the scam work? I know that there was a notional $6 excess that I'd last seen go into her pocket. Call it the bezzle. But how was it redeemed? Was it the $6 that mattered or the lottery ticket? Or were both the bonus she sought?

Double entry accounting. Where was this $6 surplus going? If she was reporting a $26 sale to the lottery, where was the other $6 coming from? Was she doing a Breaking Bad money laundering in a cash heavy business type of transaction?

Or was it just about the ticket? Was there a pool of extra tickets that the owners can distribute? Launder money while potentially increasing one's odds of winning? Tilting the scales of "It could happen to you!"

Can someone explain the likely mechanics of the grift? What is the nature of the bezzle? Who is getting shafted here other than us taxpayers? There's skimming going on, but how exactly?

grocery store art

Shady, a playlist

A soundtrack for this anecdote (spotify version)
Postscript: I obviously didn't win the lottery but gained 25 odd tweets and food for thought for my trouble

File under: , , , , , , , ,

Writing log. November 6, 2022

Tuesday, November 08, 2022


Signs in the gymnasium
Activists, I guess you'd call it, readying the early crowd
Scoping out the camera-friendly angles. Warm up band
Anecdotes to break the ice, cowboy boots
Hint of electricity among those gathered here
Victory had been a tall order for so long, a chimera
Cruel opponents, they had stacked the deck, heartless
But now there was a glimmer, now there was a candidate
Single name, recognition, frisson of charisma
Earnest, intense eyes. He looks the part

Police detail checking bags at the entrance
Tentatively asking as they inspect
"Not carrying any... weapons?" Hopeful
"Just umbrellas huh?" Relief.
Open carry state. State of the grassy knoll.
Echoes of Dallas and other slaughters
Up on the mic. "My music? … I call it Americhicana"
Warm voice, violin, bongo drums, acoustic guitar
Interpreter signing on the side of the stage
American sign language, dancing along

High visibility vests, volunteers, committed and energetic
Smiling, welcoming, well meaning, sign up sheets
Envelopes passed out, "There's still time to donate"
Signs distributed, we know what's expected
Slogans, short cuts, we know what's at stake
Raise them ritually, woo-hoo, stand on demand
Shake the signs, excitement for the video clip
It's been a long day. Last hours of early voting

Ode to Flying Ted draws cheers, crowd participation
Join in for the chorus, "Down in Cancun", chuckles
"Every little bit helps. This here... your phone is powerful"
Call all your contacts, scan the QR code, download the app
Mcfadden and Whitehead. Ain't no stoppin' us now
Fight the power, The Isley Brothers, oh yeah?
Family friendly, the DJ faded out the cuss word - expert
Stump speech, props, Toyota Tundra
Hit all the right notes, my boy wonder
Extra chairs are brought out, good turnout
Extra cheers, politics is a contact sport

rally for beto

Rally, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version) Bonus beats: Vote for Miles by Miles Davis when he went after Sly and the Family Stone. This rally was on the corner.

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

File under: , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log. November 4, 2022

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Soul Insurance (Part 7 Premiums Due)

Between the collection agency and replacement cost... Part 7 of Soul Insurance (see previously)

VII. Premiums Due

The claims adjuster was about to unleash his latest creation, a new variant
Time was running out for the three tribes and he was getting impatient
As per the umbrella protocol, he'd made sure to duly advise the council
For he was rather set on properly adjudicating the dirty rotten scoundrels

They'd had fair warning, and humanity's continued obstinacy was astounding
Moreover, after the past year, they ought to have known that no one was coming.
So he quite expected the scrutiny
  of the judicial review to be merely pro-forma
Gathered at the council were the chief gods:
   Nyame, Nyankopon and Odomankoma

Just then Asase Yaa walked into the Supreme Court
   to make her representation
The others were startled, and plunged into a state of consternation
For, by her very presence, there was no denying the shameful implication
That divinity in all its forms had not been not making their contributions

"I see here that you are gathered
   with kangaroo outcomes envisaged for humanity
Even as a not inconsiderable number
  of their species bear soul insurance policies
Indeed, I myself have issued
  excessive liability certificates for some, I can attest
What kind of blind justice are you proposing at this stage?
  Wherefore due process?"

The claims adjuster snorted, this was a dubious argument of the sort
That a newly-appointed prosecutor would have seen thrown out of court
Yet, being delivered by Asase Yaa, with such eloquent simplicity
It seemed to be impressing on the gods a touch of vigilante hesitancy

At length they made to withdraw
  to confer privately in the Elysian chambers
Much to the disappointment of the claims adjuster,
   Asase Yaa had stolen his thunder
The sole human observer to the proceedings
   sat concerned, his face drained of hope
Meanwhile outside, observers were worried,
  waiting for the white puffs of smoke

While there were no minutes recorded, Dear Reader,
   of the gods' deliberation
It stands to reason that Nyankopon broke the tie,
   for it was a split decision
For all intents and purposes,
  future generations would behold it as a fudge
They'd settled the case on a technical provision
   like a Republican judge

"We will honor any and all soul insurance liability certificates
If all premiums are fully paid up, as per the auditor's designates
Blanket coverage will not be extended due to humanity's historic neglect
Delinquent accounts should be actively suspended with immediate effect"

"We recognize the temptations of the fruit of knowledge as an attractive nuisance
But recommend that, going forward,
   humanity's curriculum include honor and obeisance
We've even waived, in this instance,
   our usual scrutiny of the uninsured as a consensus
Asase Yaa held sway over strenuous objections by Nyame about the fate of the least of us"

The adjuster was not used to being stymied
  but, then, what could you do?
The only recourse to satisfaction was the detail
   that he beheld on page two
The ostensible soul insurance provider was a rank outsider
Who went by the name of The Incorrigible Ananse the Spider

No Problem by Lalelani

The elders of the three tribes had been alerted
   to the impending decision
That they would now have to pay the piper
  per the judgment was the obligation
The Wan tribe had been chastened
  by the initial burden of the plague they'd weathered
Their linguist held the position that the premiums
   were a small price to pay to be sheltered

"If a crop fails, it is part of the risk we assumed,
  it's not time for disbelief.
And with the kind of losses we've already faced,
   we are mindful of The Laws of Grief
Remember that the claims adjuster has threatened us with a season of migration
If he can find grounds on which we've welched
   on any terms and conditions"

The scribes from Agona in the torrid zone
   had seen the ballooning liability
"We ought to resist nostalgia,
  and find our soul insurance in community
And build a new world, cherish the day,
   and have love for one another"
They were mindful about living under the shadow of the claims adjuster

But there was deadlock, the linguists of the Usher tribe still believed,
Ignoring all evidence to the contrary that the rest had perceived,
That they could wiggle out from underneath the contract against all odds
And impress their opinion of the fine print in negotiation with the gods

ananse and the greedy lion

Ananse was playing the long game,
   he loved this type of two-sided market
Remember, you reap what you sow
  when it's time to collect the harvest
His favorite business model was toll collecting,
   he stressed its importance
Moreover he liked his shell games well rigged,
   he craved their indulgence

He preferred his dice duly loaded, his answers pre-rehearsed
Of their capitalist inclinations, he was, indeed, well versed
His intentions he kept well hidden, it paid to be discreet
But now was the moment of reckoning, he rose up to speak

Call me Captain Obvious but I'm no Goody Two Shoes
Of your Never Never Man tendencies,
  I see that you can't be disabused
But I, Ananse the Spider, am unmoved
  and, on this subject, will not relent
When the snake is in the house
  there's no need to discuss the matter at length

Buyer beware, how many warnings does it take?
You human beings keep making the same mistakes
Living in the torrid zone you should have been mindful of subtle hints
I gave you numerous chances, yet you failed to examine the fine print

Selective amnesia, short term hubris, and wishful thinking
Huhudious behavior all around, and copious palm wine drinking
Discarding the well-worn terrain of the mosquito principle
Acting, for all intents and purposes, as if you were invincible

I can save you from the claims adjuster's wrath,
   your insurance provider
The end is in sight for this covidious plague,
   you are soul survivors
I can take you higher, right here on earth, we can build Elysium
Payment is due, all that remains is the matter of your premiums

These trying times have been an object lesson
   in humanity's curriculum
Throughout, yours truly has been dispensing wisdom,
  such is my asylum
It's no use moping around now, asking
   what paradise have we lost?
My brand of soul insurance is fully yours,
   and at replacement cost

At this, the gathered tribes suddenly realized
  they were left with no other option
With the threat of the looming claims adjuster,
   they made to take up collection
After pocketing his fees, Ananse settled the matter
  , he was proud of his endurance
As usual he would have the last word:
   "This is the price you pay for soul insurance"

Henkes' Schnapps ad 1969 - beware of imitations

Premiums Due

A soundtrack to this collection notice. (spotify version)
Asase Yaa in fairy garden 2

Soul Insurance (Index)

A covidious folktale
  1. Ananse and the Chief's Scribe
  2. Enter the Claims Adjuster
  3. An Audience with the Linguist
  4. Pity the Mink
  5. Short Sale
  6. Excessive Liabilities
  7. Premiums Due
  8. Soul Insurance, a playlist
  9. Indemnity Provisions
  10. Full Circle
  11. Enforcement Actions
  12. The Die is Cast
All of the forgoing were written in a weeklong burst in March 2021. The original conception was a sonnet but after about 5,000 words, I gave up on brevity.

This bill of goods is part of a series: In a covidious time.

Next: Soul Insurance, a playlist

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log: Part 7 March 27, 2021