Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Poet on The President

In The Root, Wole Soyinka analyses Barack Obama's choice of Ghana for his first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa after becoming POTUS. It makes for interesting reading, not least for the opportunity to savour Soyinka's highly verbose and dense prose style. Generally speaking, extreme verbosity and density does not make for very readable writing, but Soyinka somehow manages to pull it off in the way that only Soyinka can. He turned 75 earlier this month--remarkable for a man who has had numerous run-ins with brutal military dictactorships in his native Nigeria, including one which resulted in a 22-month imprisonment in solitary confinement from 1967 to 1969 (an ordeal immortalised in the ominously titled prison memoir The Man Died published in 1972).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lunar Landing

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."
--Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969 (See: NASA transcript)

It's been exactly 40 years since man first landed on the moon. The Apollo 11 mission still stands as one of the most remarkable achievements in human history. Technologically, it is arguably the single greatest feat of engineering of all time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In a Mirror Darkly

What's the opposite of an A-List Celebrity? Not a Z-List Celebrity but rather a Z-List Nonentity. Following that train of thought to it's logical conclusion: an A-List Celebrity is equivalent to a Z-List Nonentity and a Z-List Celebrity is equivalent to an A-List Nonentity. By the same token, a B-List Celebrity is equivalent to a Y-List Nonentity and a Y-List Celebrity is equivalent to a B-List Nonentity. And so on from A to Z and reflectivity from Z to A.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Madman or Genius?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb of The Black Swan fame, that is. I can't quite make up my mind. Maybe he's both. Whatever he is, what he's not is boring. Here's his very interesting take on the limits of statistical and probabilistic reasoning vis-a-vis the global economic meltdown.

Update: An alternative title for this post would have been "Insanely Great or Greatly Insane?"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Two Geeks in a Pond

Like Two Peas in a Pod.

How so? Thus so:
Worth a pop.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Corporate Resurrection

Last week saw the resurrection of a dead company: General Motors. This was possible through a quintessentially American innovation: Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Chapter 11 is the "Reorganization Under the Bankruptcy Code" chapter of the United States Bankruptcy Code. (The United States Code refers to the categorised, consolidated and codified general and permanent laws of the United States.) There is another form of corporate bankruptcy, Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, that deals with "Chapter 7. Liquidation Under the Bankruptcy Code". Although other countries have similar legislation to Chapter 11, for example Insolvency laws in the United Kingdom, there are several aspects of Chapter 11 that make it unique. For instance, under Chapter 11, typically the current management is allowed to continue running the business, whereas under British Insolvency laws the business is "put under administration" and is run by an outsider.

Failure, it appears, in the United States is an option. And a very good thing that is too. In Silicon Valley, a corporate failure or two is regarded as a badge of honour. This is something the rest of the world should learn from the United States: Failure does not have to be the end, it can be a second chance and a new beginning.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Soyinka on Négritude

"The tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. The tiger acts."
--Wole Soyinka's immortal response to the Négritude movement

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Merchant of Hope

Yesterday and today, U. S. President Barack Hussein Obama made his second visit to an African country after coming in to office. He made a major policy speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in which he spoke candidly about the failures of African governments, as well as the challenges and opportunities of the present and the future. The title was a typically Obaman one: "A New Moment of Promise in Africa". The speech has been characterised as a strong dose of "tough love."

President Obama's first visit to an African country was in early June 2009, to Egypt. Again he made a major policy speech, this time at Cairo University. The title? "A New Beginning". The same hopeful theme--apparently. But was it really?

Reading and comparing the two speeches, I couldn't help but be struck by the difference in tone between them. In the Egypt speech, President Obama adopted a more cautious, almost conciliatory, approach. In the Ghana speech he was much more hard-hitting and blunt--and rightly so. But still, it makes me wonder about the real motivations and drivers behind these two speeches. It's not as though the countries of North Africa are paragons of virtue with regard to good government.

President Obama (quite rightly) slammed Sub-Saharan countries for their failures of governance. But when the BBC's Justin Webb asked him in an interview just before his trip to Egypt whether he regarded President Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler, President Obama replied: "No, I tend not to use labels for folks...I think he has been a force for stability and good in the region."

Clearly, President Obama has no problems accurately labelling the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa: the words "disease", "conflict", "tribalism", "patronage", "nepotism", corruption", "brutality" and "bribery" all made it into the Ghana speech. So why call the Egyptian spade a horticultural, earth-inverting implement?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Mr. Andreessen, I presume?

Just over two years ago, Marc Andreessen started a blog on technology, business (especially tech startups), media and other issues. It was (what's that cliche again?) required reading for anybody interested in technology issues, especially around computing and the Internet--and I am such a body. And then about a year after the blog's launch, in mid-2008, Mr. Andreessen abruptly disappeared from the blogosphere never to be heard from again. Until now. At the beginning of this week, Mr. Andreessen blogged on the launch of Andreessen Horowitz, a new US$ 300 million venture capital fund headed by himself and his long-time business partner Ben Horowitz. It all sounds very interesting indeed. The first inkling I had of this fund was back in February 2009 in an interview Andreessen did with Charlie Rose. Oh, and he made the cover of the latest issue of Fortune magazine as well (story here).

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Old Boys' Network

This from the stated-owned Zambia Daily Mail of 8 July 2009:

Mugabe, African role model - Rupiah
By NDUBI MVULA and WALLEN SIMWAKA

PRESIDENT [Rupiah] Banda [of Zambia] has described his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe as a role model to all Africans who fought for and cherish African nationalism.[...]

“President Mugabe is a role model. Lesser men would not be standing where he is now, they would have been broken by the intrigues of his enemies. You are such a dedicated African Mr President…what a selfless leader you are,” he said.

He was speaking yesterday at this years’ Lwiindi Lo Kuzyola Mukuni N’gombe traditional ceremony, also attended by Mr Mugabe, at the Simukale Shrine in Mukuni village [in Livingstone, Zambia].

The ceremony, which is a commemoration of the Toka Leya people’s history, ended in song and dance.

For a good insight into the problems of the African continent, look no further than the few short paragraphs above. Both Mr. Banda (age 72) and Mr. Mugabe (age 85) were freedom fighters in their respective countries. That was decades ago, although you wouldn't know it from Mr. Banda's words. But the most chilling part for Zambia and Zambians is Mr. Banda's descriptions of Mr. Mugabe as a "role model" and a "selfless leader". I wish I could truthfully say that these words were little more than diplomatic hyperbole, but I can't. That's what makes them so chilling--and baffling.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Christmas Wish List: Making Your Case

I recently stumbled upon Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008) by U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and leading legal communications expert Bryan A. Garner. Although the book is primarily aimed at helping lawyers improve their powers of written and oral persuasion, I've seen enough to convince me it would be an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in effective writing and speaking.

A nice anecdote from Tip # 110 ("Learn how to handle a difficult judge") in the section on "Handling Questions":
Whatever else you do when confronted by a hostile and unreasonable judge, don’t reply in kind. Don’t become hostile yourself; don’t display anger, annoyance or impatience. Keep telling yourself that you owe it to your client—because you do.

Even so, lawyers are entitled to take great delight in the wonderful comeuppances to judicial boorishness that some of their more rash predecessors have devised. Our favorite was also a favorite of Justice Robert H. Jackson. A noted barrister, F.E. Smith, had argued at some length in an English court when the judge leaned over the bench and said: “I have read your case, Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser than I was when I started.”

To which the barrister replied: “Possibly not, My Lord, but far better informed.” Smith, who later became a famous judge as the Earl of Birkenhead, could reportedly carry off such snappy rejoinders with impunity.

We doubt that, but in any case we don’t recommend that you emulate him.
Note to friends and family: This would be a nice christmas present for your humble servant.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Tolstoy of the Zulus

"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read them."
--Saul Bellow, New York Times Magazine (1988)

"Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus--unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership."
--Ralph Wiley, Dark Witness (1996)
The term "orature" was coined by the Ugandan linguist and literary theorist Pio Zirimu. He used it as early as 1970; at first interchangeably with "oral literature", but later defined more precisely to mean "the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression". (See Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams by Ngugi wa Thiong'o.)

The primacy of orature over literature is one of the distinguishing features of non-literate societies such as the Zulus and the Papuans compared to 19th Century and early 20th Century Russia and France. So whilst there may well have been a Zulu Tolstoy and a Papuan Proust nobody would have been able to read them.

Other relevant features of these non-literate societies were their concepts of identity and property--both tended to be communal and collective in nature. Consequently, virtually all artisitic works such as songs, proverbs, stories, plays, and so forth were associated not with their individual authors but with their communities. Thus, in such societies, wise sayings for instance were commonly attributed to society as a whole, as evidenced by the typical introductory phrasing of proverbs: "The Zulus say..." and so forth.

Another issue worth considering on this topic: How do you untangle the heredity of an intellectual artifact like a novel or a sing or an Internet? To take the last item, the Internet, as an example: The Internet, as we know,, would be impossible without integrated circuits (an American invention); which would be impossible without Boolean algebra (which is of British extraction); which would be impossible without Arabic numerals, particularly ones and zeros (Arabic, get it?); which would be impossible without the numerical concept of zero (which owes its existence to Ancient Indian mathematicians).