Welcome

Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Who Is That Guy?

As I lounge in my pyjamas in the middle of the last day of this year, nibbling homemade peanut brittle, while okra soup is cooking in the kitchen, what more natural thing to think about than how to overthrow governments?

My little daughter is often unexpected inspiration, though the links take some time to come through. This time, the connection was quite quick and not too indirect.

We were in the car heading off to a dinner. She's learning to read now and asked "What is N.O.V.?". I had no idea what she meant as I tried to concentrate on the road. Then I saw that she was reading the licensing sticker on the windshield. "Oh. That is short for November. Will you remember that?" I said. I then proceeded to sing a little ditty:

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,

I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”

Oh, her Daddy is so funny, but what was he singing? I told her that this song was to commemorate the failed plot led by Guy Fawkes (a converted Catholic of Yorkshire heritage) to blow up England's Parliament in 1605. (The plot, masterminded by Robert Catesby, was an attempt by a group of Catholic religious conspirators to kill King James the First, his family, and most of the aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords during the Opening of Parliament.) This plot became immortalised into an English national pastime, like playing 'conkers'. I explained how as a boy in England, every time Autumn was coming would bring in the tradition of building a 'Guy'. You would find old clothes and fill them with newspapers, and build an effigy. This representation of the plotter would then be paraded around the streets in a box cart of even an old baby pushchair, as children would show off their handiwork and hope that people would offer money, "Penny for the Guy?", you asked, this money would then be used to buy fireworks to be set off on Guy Fawkes Night, November the fifth.

On that night, there would be 'bonfire parties', usually just in the street where you lived: in the 1960s and 1970s in England, car ownership was such that there was little risk of blowing up adjacent cars. If that risk existed, then you had to find some open ground. Some people always sought a hill so that the bonfires could be seen and also the firework displays would be more visible.

Now, the Caribbean spin. I met one of my mother-in-law's nephews this morning, who like her hails from the Bahamian island of Inagua. We spoke about Junaknoo and how that festival had become so elaborate in the past 30 years in The Bahamas.I recalled how as a boy in Jamaica, the festival had been small and during the daytime: men would dress in scary costumes with pants covered in crepe paper fringes, wearing masks that depicted various evil faces, and would play a guitar, penny whistle and a drum. As a child this was a terrifying sight. The nephew told me that this was how it was too several years ago. He then mentioned how they also celebrated November the Fifth. He described the festival and it's 'bonfire night', Inagua style. My mother-in-law confirmed this. The tradition seems to have waned but I understand is being revived. The Inaguan version of the 'Guy' was an effigy of anyone disliked.

I'm not aware of any other Caribbean places celebrating this event, but am happy to be corrected. It smacks of republicanism on the one hand and is of course based on a religious opposition that failed.

Well, the basis of the traditions are well set in England and they may not be as keenly followed now as they were when I was a boy. Just racking my memory I remember that we always had the time of our lives. Fireworks are dangerous. Boys love playing with fire. Boys are terrorists in short pants. Things I used to do or be involved with--I was no goody-goody, but I also was not allowed to get into trouble--included:
  • putting an exploding firework in an empty milk bottle and seeing if the explosion would smash the bottle...very dangerous, but fun...
  • popping a rocket firework into some one's letter box, lighting the touch paper, then running as the rocket roared into the house--we hoped that no one would walk in the direction of the firework...extremely dangerous and reckless, but amazing wheeze especially when done to one of the neighbourhood 'ogres'...
  • tying a firework to a dog's or cat's tail...boys will be boys, tee-hee...
  • putting a 'Catherine Wheel' firework (one that spins) on the wheel of your bicycle and riding while the fireworks flared; that was cool, especially at night time...
  • putting fireworks inside the 'Guy' so that there were some extra surprises when it was on the bonfire...always a good idea to stay clear of the bonfire.
Back then, fun was cheap and did not involve batteries.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Sunday Blessing: The Devil's Whip Has Beaten Me.

The spirit of Christmas can often be miserable. Not the mean-spirited, Grinch-like behaviour that some cannot cast off even for a few days in December. But the weakening of the spirit that often comes at winter time, when the body is worn down and sees its best moment to trip us up. My little one's body had tripped her up from the day we set sail from Bim. Then, my wife's body had done the Watusi on her from the time she got home to Bahamaland. Now it was my turn. They had resorted to bottled potions. But I'm a bit old fashioned, and like many Caribbean people of my generation prefer to use the power of herbal medicine. Some, like me, are not at all attracted to pharmaceutical potions.

I felt the flu coming on a few days ago. My temperature was rising a little; limbs and joints were starting to ache; appetite was waning; thirst was high. “Where the cerasee?” I cried out. I went to the house of my wife’s aunt, where the bush had run rampant. “Sorry, Dennis. We pull it all up.” They did what? That’s like living in the desert and throwing away water. We all know that cerasee works for a range of ailments, so why pull it up. I had to go to another plan. Fever (lemon) grass is not ideal, but with mint and lime it can work to at least alleviate the agony. Add some rum, which I think only works to help you sleep, and my toddy was fixed. I felt good for a few hours.

Another herb that is good, quinqueliba,I had when I was in west Africa. But could I find it here? Not a chance. Good grief. What has development done to us? I could not go to a "herbalist" because here the potions they sell are the "devil's work" in terms of illegal herbs.

But God works in mysterious ways. We had a Christmas gift to deliver and when it was being delivered we were offered a few “snacks”. Well, Bahamian use of language is loose at best. The snack consisted of avocados with a mango salsa, then a platter, adorned with two types of roast turkey—one with crab stuffing; that’s enough already. Then there was fried grouper, peas and rice, macaroni and cheese, steamed vegetables, and roast ham. “Eat up, dears,” we were told. I explained that my appetite was poor because the flu. Then up flew our host. “You need the devil’s whip. That will fix you.” Surely, this sweet old lady was not part of some coven in the otherwise Christian Bahamas. She went to the kitchen.

Back she came a quarter of an hour later, with a dark grey brew in a mug. It smelt evil. It was not bitter like cerasee, but had a lingering dull taste. My mug went down into the mug smoothly. “Let me know if the devil does not whip your flu,” said our host with a grin, and I thought of those children's fairy tales and wondered who would kiss me later to wake me from a hundred year sleep. “Now before you go, how about some old fashioned coconut tart? Or some black cake?”. Oh, Lord preserve me, I thought.

My first born daughter, who had just arrived before we had to make our snack visit, was in heaven. Straight off the plane into "auntie's kitchen". Oh yes!

We joined the family for evening dinner, but of course did not want to eat. We watched as they patiently waited for their food then ate like starved waifs.

My night was torrid. I sweated like I was in a Turkish bath; my pyjamas were soaked. I barely coughed, but I could feel the cold breaking up. But my head stopped its throbbing. It seemed that the devil had whipped me. I felt good enough to go to church for Christmas Sunday. Of course, the church was bursting at the seams, as is always the case for the main festivals. While I listened to all the references about how The Devil will try to work his evil tricks and turn us to the wrong path, I thought with a wry smile how the devil had coaxed me back to health.

I spent a little time today trying to find a reference to this herb, about which I had never heard before, and eventually found something in a book of herbs from coastal Guyana (see A Guide to The Medicinal Plants of Coastal Guyana) and it also appears in herbal references to Pakistan and south east Asia. It goes by the clinical names Achyranthes Indica and Achyranthes Aspera and has common names of 'cow pimpler' and 'soldier rod', and is supposed to be good for colds, stomach problems and thrush--as my mother in law said, that's dealing with a lot of different viruses; I'll attest to two of those solutions. I can see from the picture how the name could have been gained. I'm not sure if I can find some to take home and let the devil have another chance to put his whip on me.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Foiled In The Act.

Bahamians love nothing more than a party. Not the music and the jump up. Not the singing and the eating. Not the toasting and the roasting. But the leaving. They cannot wait for the party to end to show what makes them possibly unique among people in the Caribbean region. Once the final bell has rung at a party and the host has said "It was so good to see you all," then Bahamians let rip with their national speciality--toting. My wife has told me that no self-respecting Bahamian woman will go to a party without some foil folded into her handbag. Its removal will often come with the dulcet, "You know my husband couldn't make it, so I want to take some home for him," and the lady will proceed to create a volcano mound of food on a paper plate that would have shamed her had she done it during the party.

Jamaicans can wax off a whole heap of food at a party and will probably be tempted to take some home, but it would be a sort of self-denial if there was a lot left to take. "Why me neva nyam off all o' di brisket when dem did serve it?" a Jamaican man might say, tears filling the corner of his eyes as he recalls how he had tried to be polite to the other guests and only put 18 slices on his plate.

Trinis will mix corn soup and roti with curry, and eat and drink and wuk up all they can at the party, and they too may be tempted to roll up a little morsel to sample at the homestead. But, from what I have seen they are ready to just grab a handful of food and it usually only lasts as far as the car.

So, if you were to put these three nationalities together at the end of a party, the Bahamian would skillfully anhilitate the competition, not only with the load that is taken, but also how it might be transported. "Why else you ahve a big handbag, my dear? You ahve to make space for the left overs," I once heard a bejewelled, wonderfully made up and coiffured woman utter after a little buffet in the church hall. The Bahamians even had a song, "Da Toters", about this pastime that was a hit a couple of Christmases ago, performed fittingly by a Junkanoo fun group called 'Sting'. Listen to it. Nothing need be added: "...seen it done at weddings and funerals too..."


Da Toters - K.B. ft. Sting Junkanoo Group

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Culcha: De Feelin Ov Chrismus.

Christmas is a good time to reflect on the bases of our culture. In the Caribbean, we are not one people with one history and have no single identity. Even within a Caribbean country the cultural roots can be very different.

Take Jamaica, for example. We have the African heritage from the ancestors of slaves brought some 400 plus years ago and that gives the biggest numerical influence, and that stretches through much of the language, the music, the dance, the food, and what people think of as ‘the face’ of Jamaica. But we also have Indians and Chinese—mainly indentured labour who started to arrive in the 19th century—who have given us more influences on the culinary and commercial side than on the social side.In Jamaica, we are not big on Hindu or Muslim festivals such as Diwali or Ramadan (like in Guyana or Trinidad) and we don’t get much into Chinese New Year. We have Lebanese/Syrians roots, too—look, example at one of our famous prime ministers, Edward Seaga. Again, commercial and political influences come from this strand. Jewish people have also been an important part of the nation. We have white Europeans bases too, many there from the original slave trade and owning and overseeing plantations.

Look at one of out great authors, Anthony Winkler,and his marvelous books written by this whiter-than-white man but in what we can term a black voice—Jamaican patois—such as “The Painted Canoe”, “The Lunatic”, and “Going Home to Teach”. I’m not going to get into the various divides on racial and ethnic basis,such as the difference between “white Jamaicans” (who may be recent descendants from Europe) and “Jamaica whites” (island born and probably at best ‘off-white’ or in Jamaican accents, ‘half white’). I wont talk about “red women”. I am not getting into the “browning” thing”. Nor am I going to say who looks like a “Coolie” or “Chinee”. Many of us are well mixed up.

But, come the biggest festivals it is the black and Christian cultures that dominate. What I like most about this time is the reversion to the past, and it is especially to the slave heritage past, to old customs and musical styles, like mento (which is not that old), or quadrille. Mento’s hey day was in the 1920s and 1930s so is the music of my parents’ generation. For me, this is as much the music of Jamaica, and it has its variants in other islands, such as The Bahamas, and I seem to hear its strains more at Christmas than at other times. One thing I like about it is that I can understand most of the lyrics, which is not the case with a lot of reggae, especially dance hall.

Christmas is a feeling as much as a festival. It makes sense to feel "Christmassy". That feeling comes with the music, increases with the black cake, widens with the platters of food (turkey, ham, rice and peas, fried fish, mince pies), getting higher with the going to church and singing carols, and ends when you are ready to get back to what we call real life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Buddy, Can You Lend Me A Dime?

I read a very sad story in today's New York Times (see report) about a man who shoplifted an item costing US$4.99, for which he was short US$1. It's not a laughing matter and should not be confused with the sport of 'urban sprinting' shown in the video:


Urban Shoplifting - Watch more Free Videos

My wife says that I 'push the envelope'. I will treat this in its most positive sense. What she refers to is the fact that I rarely accept what is presented to me on a plate as all that I can have.I put that down to some part of my Jamaican upbringing: "We mus' do betta dan dat, man," or that "Me is som'body," attitude. It's a combination of demanding respect, but also not settling for what you're offered. Much of life is negotiation, like it or not, and usually first offers are not the best. If you have ever been to a souk and had to haggle you will understand the idea of 'best price'. At its worst see what happens when you make a legitimate insurance claim against a company determined not to pay out.

I have a very simple principle: if you ask for something, you know that the worst that will happen is that you will be refused, and you are no worse off, but your wish may be granted and then you are better off. Here's an example from my current trip. You want more fries? Ask for it, and challenge the notion that you have to pay extra.

A few days ago I arrived at Washington National Airport and saw a stand selling phone accessories. I asked the lady to say honestly whether her prices were good or not, and she said they were comparable to Radio Shack. I then asked the price of something and the lady told me US$19.99. I then said, "What price for two? Can we haggle?" "Sure," she replied I bought two items and I saw the bill was for US$20.99. I have a notion that I call "The Give", which allows people to be generous if they are given a chance.

Our man in the shoplifting story clearly did not feel he could negotiate even US$1, either for the price to be moved or to bring the extra money later. That is dreadful. His community should be aware that he has fallen on harder economic times, but clearly if it did know, he did not feel that he could present that and reason with the store clerk or owner. I have often been in a situation where I challenged a store clerk to offer a discount or waive some fee and if she or he could not to let me speak to the owner. In a big corporate store like Macy's the owner will not be available but the manager may have enough freedom to do something.

Yesterday I went to downtown Nassau seeking a Christmas present for that special person in my life. I found a car park but did not have any change. I told the lady that I would pay when I got back. "Leave me a dollar, and pay me the rest when you get back," she said. Where was I going? For sure, I would not abandon the car, unless it had been stolen, and if I am a crook, she was well rid of me before I roughed her up.

I went to a store to buy an item that was already on sale. I asked the man serving me if he knew about 'brawta' (a bonus, something extra), which is common in Jamaica, especially in markets. He told me he did not. So, I said, what discount if I buy two items. He thought, played with his calculator and showed me the price for the two. I said, "You can do better than that, man." He tapped again and down came the price. Both sides satisfied, we then close the deal.

Is it fear or vanity that stops us doing things like what I described? I have a notion that these thing generate more things like it. But, if you don't make your case you cannot expect anything. I have been unemployed and without money and never went hungry for one day. I am not a hustler and I have never begged in the sense of panhandling. Sure, some of us are brought up with the notion that we do not ask for anything. Even if you were, there is the argument about knowing what could be your dues. Those can sometimes be no more than compassion. A favour can always be repaid. I often joke offering to wash dishes if I cannot pay: I do mean it, so feed me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sexing Up Parliament.

Barbados is drifting toward the bizarre. One MP, the personable Patrick Todd (Minister of State: Education & Human Resource Development; pictured), has apparently suggested that fellow MPs declare their sexual orientation (see Nation News). Now, he has said that he is not homophobic--interesting that he does not need to say that he is not hetero-phobic. But that does not mean the country is not. So, let an MP put his or her sexual head over the parapet and let's see how well they are received. It's not such a bad idea if you believe that Parliamentarians are now ready to be open about their assets as well as their 'liabilities'. You want to know what a fellow legislator likes between the sheets, or in the kitchen, or in the barnyard, or on the small screen, but you're balking at finding out how they obtained the assets and generate the they have? Come on, now. You're pulling one of my two legs.

I do not listen to the Bajan Parliament on the radio much, but it would be funny to hear the Speaker referring to the Member for St. Peter or St. John (the parishes just happen to be the seats of the previous and current prime ministers, and have no relationship to private parts), with the rider ('homosexual', or 'heterosexual', or 'uncertain sexual preference') while the budget debate is going on. Hansard will need to be read very carefully to ascertain how and why voting was the way it was. Did the gays gangs together to overturn the straights? Is a gay MPs constituency always at the bottom of the list when funds are being allocated? My curiosity is now pricked.

From now onI think Minister Todd should go by the nickname "Sweeney", in honour of the famous demon (butchering) barber of Fleet Street. I can imagine plenty a Bajan, who on hearing that his or her MP is not as straight as an arrow, would be ready with the cut-throat razor to do a little paring of the margin of the member for wherever. Makes me wince.

Barbados, for all the claims of 'little England", is not a liberal democracy. It could not handle having someone in Parliament like Matthew Parris or Lord (Peter--there you go again) Mandelson, who would be bringing their boyfriends to cocktail parties. Nor could it deal with the openness of US Congressman, Barney Frank, the openly gay representative from Massachusetts. It's not at the rabid end of the scale like Jamaica, where burning and killing is deemed "good for dem". But, I am not sure where toward that end of the scale it lies. So, Minister Todd, I think you are playing too much with your members. Nice idea, but it's time is not yet ripe.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Time Is Binding.

At a time when economic activities are supposedly falling at a rapid rate, even declining in some places, it comes as a surprise to me that people talk more and more about how busy they are. A simple argument would be that they are busy doing nothing, because the economic data does not show them producing much more of anything. Maybe people are running to stand still, but that is essentially the same thing.

“Oh, I can’t do that. I know it only takes 10 minutes but I don’t have them to spare,” is the sort of breathless plaint I hear so often. I just blink. I think I know what it is to be rushed. In the workplace for sure, people love to give deadlines--real or fictional--as a means of controlling activities: I know what you are up to for the next n hours. I know what it is to be rushed because I have not allowed enough time to do something: plane departs at 10; need to be at airport at 8; journey takes at least 1 hour; so I need to leave at 7, and it's now 7.15...Oh, s**t! I know what it is to have time taken away, and a sporting analogy is best: better players always seem to have more time, because they anticipate better, prepare better, and execute better; so when playing against a better player one always seems to have less time. So, this time thing can be constrictive.

I’m a lover of John Donne’s poetry, and adore especially “The Sun Rising”, whose opening stanza is:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,

Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?

Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?


It's not a poem about nature, but about time in the sense that its natural rhythm can intrude, in this case upon lovers, and their time spent well during the night, must end as day break arrives. Time has run out for them, but they had enjoyed the ride, so to speak.

So, what is keeping so many people always on their toes? I’m not really sure. Living in a bucolic place like Barbados, where speediness is not something that one sees as evident in many, if any, activities, I can identify a lot of time lost because of traffic and road works, and the general inefficiency with which things are done. An American friend, who is staying at my house while I am on vacation, sent me a message last week about how he spent nearly two hours in line at the drivers' licensing department. After which time he asked to see the manager, having lost his temper by then. He questioned why there were no persons serving anyone for 45 minutes and told the manager that this was unacceptable and that his fellow Barbadians should not have to put up with this. Everyone cheered, apparently. Then, the line started to move, real fast. So, in Barbados, we can understand that the BPOs ('business prevention officer') can eat into our time.

Having spent the last few days in Washington DC, I did not notice any especially different pace to the way that life was being lived there than I did two years ago, when I last lived there. During the winter months people tend to move around faster to generate some heat or at least not let the cold take hold. People generally do not like the shorter days and want to cram more into what daylight exists, and that would make sense in a world where we did not have electricity to give light whenever we wanted it. But, overall, the pace of Washington seemed about the same. Even a trip to the shopping mall did not seem like a dip into a pool of frenzy. The few who were shopping seemed very relaxed in the pace at which they did it, belying an image portrayed in a current car ad.

Maybe the 'busyness' is a pure scheduling issue. I remember the days in the 1980s when the Filofax made new heights in social status as yuppies showed what it was to have a full diary, that way one seemed both important and busy. The extension of this was to have a personal digital assistant (PDA), a phone that also had features that helped to keep all of these activities in order: ‘to-do’ lists would pop up with their reminders and deadlines. “8am: Coffee with ...”; “9am: Call ...”; “9.30: Organize rodeo riders for birthday party”, and so on. So, when a call comes in and a friend says, “Can we have a coffee?” of course it’s going to be difficult because the day’s time slots have largely been filled. Forget spontaneity. “How about we try next month?” might come a supposedly helpful offer in reply. “No bother. I was thinking of committing suicide and wanted your advice. But given that you’re so busy, I’ll go ahead with the plan I have…” The phone line goes dead. New item for the calendar, "Funeral".

My watch shows me 12 hours and I know that the normal day has two sets of these. I tend to sleep between 6-8 hours, so that leaves me 16-18 hours for other things each day. I always have breakfast—though it seems that this is now a luxury for many, taken in the passage of some other activity—and it does not last long, say 30 minutes max. Later in the day I take lunch—again, a luxury it seems—and that can be between 30-60 minutes. I admit that my lunch is sometimes taken with an eye and ear on other things, but I do eat. So, meals gobble up about 1-2 hours of my day. That leaves 14-16 hours. Time wasters come into the picture—much less than they used to when I worked in an office—and now they are really pleasant with it, as they are usually building-related people; fixers, movers, painters, planters, etc.

My daughter comes from school and for about 2-4 hours I tend to be occupied with what she is up to, not always actively but in a sort of my eyes and ears are peeled for anything, especially when voices get raised and thumping sounds increase. So, where are we? That seems like about 10-12 hours left; I still seem to have half a day to waste.

I write, but I do that in and around all sorts of things, and maybe some 2-3 hours of the day have that as their activity. If I were to treat it as a discrete activity, that would put me down to around 7-9 hours left, enough for another sleep.

Maybe my life does not have that much going on, so it seems a bit ridiculous to me to talk about not having 10-15 minutes to do X or Y. I do not commute, so I do not waste say 1-2 hours in traffic. I do not go to meetings so that perhaps saves a few more hours: I must admit I was always wary of any meeting that went on much beyond 30 minutes, as I found that after that time most of the important stuff had been said and the rest of the time was waffle.

I'm not going to detail things any more, because I'm trying to deal with something in which I don't believe. This talk of no time is just utter hogwash. It may be that people cannot figure out the things to drop that are really not needed so end up like time equivalent of pack rats, having everything to do and no where to put it.

Is what is going on is not some variant of the 'Time bind', the concept introduced by sociologist, Arlie Hochschild (1997), when she published The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, and dealt with the blurring distinction between work and home social environments? Hochschild found in her research that although every mother and nearly every father said "family comes first," few of these working parents questioned their long hours or took the company up on chances for "family friendly" policies like flextime working. Her conclusion is that the roles of home and work had reversed: work was offering stimulation, guidance, and a sense of belonging, while home had become the stressful place in which there was too much to do in too little time. For sure, I can see those who comment about time shortage that it's work time in an institution that is eating into other things. But, as I said before, working to produce what?

State of The Police.

I'm an unfortunate individual. I spent 30 years living in the UK, and was so unaccustomed to seeing police with guns that I am still fearful when I visit the US, while I live in Barbados, when I visit Jamaica, and see policemen with firearms. I know that police officers are not saints, so I am happier when I feel the stakes are even and they and I are unarmed.

I visited Washigton DC over the past few days and encountered perhaps the most shocking experience I have ever had with a police officer. I was searching for a parking space and saw a police car parked in front of the store I needed to visit. I pulled in front and got out just as the female officer returned to the car. "Excuse me, where could I find parking that would give me easy access to this store?" I asked. "You don't see de sign? Ev'wher' we got signs tellin' you whe' to park. Now move your car an' let me get out." OK, I thought. Bad day? I noted the licence plate of the car and went back to my car. I pulled ahead a few inches and the police car pulled out and made a fast U turn and went on her way. I used to have no fear of asking a police officer for directions. Now, I will be more wary.

I was always dumbfounded to see American policemen acting like louts while on duty: eating food like yobbos, talking as if they were in a crowded market, and behaving just like ordinary people. I was always accustomed to seeing what could be regarded as "better behaviour" by the police. I guess times have changed.

The police and may officials can be a law unto themselves, and that can be very scary.I am not in Barbados so am leery of offering comments on the case I read in the papers that two press workers were arrested while trying to follow a story on policy misconduct (see Nation Newspaper). From the distance of another island, further to the north, I will watch how this story unfurls.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What's In A Name? Plenty.

More and more over the past weeks, I have paid closer attention to the names that people have. I used to think that many people were named by sadistic parents to have monikers that would plague them all their lives. Now, I see that perhaps there's a sinister logic in some names and how lives pan out.

First up, Bernie Madoff (pronounced 'made off'): he is now the man of the mo. with his reported US$ 50 billion bilking of almost everyone who lived.

Next, the man who is now in charge of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, that is responsible (loosely of course) for supervising financial activities in investment, etc, Christopher Cox (pronounced 'cocks'--yes, like chickens, dummy, or the other things that we tell children not to play with if they don't want to go blind). I don't know if Chris was playing with his, but he was played for a sucker, that's evident, though he was not the first.

We have Illlinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich (pronounced 'blag-oh-ja-vich'). On the streets, a blag or to blag is lying to getting something (like into a club or some goodies) through confidence trickery or cheekiness. The man is the name, yo!

We also have George Soros (pronounced 'sore us'). Georgie was famous for breaking the Bank of England when he had more money to play with than the central bank and broke the back of the pound in currency speculation on what is called "Black Wednesday" (September 16, 1992), and forced the pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The bank surely got sore. Soros is anything but sore now as one of the world's richest men. The Bank of England? Now trying to stop sterling slide off the cliff again.

I'm stretch a bit with Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, and his co-executive Jeffrey Skilling ('is killing'), who were had up for a range of securities fraud charges. Lay has several meanings, including, to lie, to bet, to press down by force, to calm, to dispose of, to have sexual intercourse;o in some metaphorical or literal senses, our Ken was doing a lot of that. Jeff, clearly was the final nail. Ken and Jeff's lies were surely killing a lot of good people and a business.

These are some of the prominent instances that we know about, and I imagine our news hounds have enough material in their archives to titillate my senses that this is more than a string of coincidences. You know that I don't believe that things happen just by chance.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What's In your Blood Line? Are We All Cousins?

My first wife hails from part of Britain's landed gentry--although a long way back in the blood line. Among her great back-grandparents was the Earl of Hopetown in Scotland (see a little biography of the titled family and also some Scottish clan history), near the Scottish border country. Her ancestor was one of the earlier sons who decided to 'jack it in' when he realised he was going to inherit nothing. He moved southward from the northern reaches of Scotland, and the family ended up in places like the Isle of Man and then Cumberland. As a result of this lineage, her family uses the name Hope prominently among given names: her father carries it as his middle name with Anderson as his first.

One of the people I met early on in Barbados, who is now a friend, is Anderson Hope, the general manager of Purity Bakery. I believe that in no way is he a blood relative of my ex-wife's family. I don't know the slave-owning lineage in Barbados so cannot say much about whether there is some direct or indirect link to the original Scottish ancestors mentioned above.

My current wife's father carries a prominent British surname, Turner (derived from one who worked with a lathe), but hailing as he does from the Bahamas, he has never set foot on Scottish soil. Yet, he carries the names Selkirk (town in Scotland's border region) and Anderson; he gave those names to the only son he had.

I am not suggesting that in anyway this line of similarities in names is more than a set of occurrence that may be common. We know that the Bajan and Bahamians who carry the Anglophone names had them given probably by a slave owner or plantation overseer. So, let's not get too worked up about "family" names in the region. They are labels tagged on a few hundred years ago, and we may be living with a true cousin because of the confusion created when the colonizers did away with slaves' real names. But, just think about to whom you actually be related.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Manifesto For The Caribbean: Professor Persaud's View

One of my Bimshire economist friends is the wise and learned Professor Avinash Persaud. He has been rising into the stratosphere of talking heads on financial crises and financial markets, on which he's a bit of an expert. He's the founder and CEO of Intelligence Capital (see their website at http://www.intelligence-capital.com/). I don't want to puff him up too much so that when we have one of our increasingly regular breakfasts together, either on a Saturday or midweek, I still have some kudos left to give. Avi, aka "The Husband" (see Notes from a small rock), may always be in need of an uplift if his beloved wife has been tying him to the tree in their yard and giving him his daily lashes for forgetting to do pick up the twins from school.

Avi is a Bimshire-born boy, but not one of the standard issues. He has a famous economist for a father and a novelist for a mother. So, one the one hand he is a natural whiz at economics, and on the other hand he can weave a good story if needed. He also has a British accent almost as clear as mine and a sense of humour and use of words that give mine a good run for the money. But, as they say, without further ado, let's get on with the show.

Avi has been whizzing around the major European and North American capitals advising on the global financial crisis and living it up in limos, but he has been thinking about his home spot a lot. Here is what he has to offer.
***********
I have just returned to Barbados from a quick tour of G7 capitals in my role as an economic and financial advisor on the current financial crisis. It is a wonderful morning in Barbados and it seems like a million miles away from the panic of the markets and policy makers in G7. It's cool, there is a little “Christmas breeze” and the sky is a wonderful baby blue with a few white fluffy clouds. I am sure it is the same across much of the Caribbean.

But all is not well in Bim, or any Caribbean tourist economy. There are murky economic clouds on the horizon. When I was last in Bim in late October, I predicted a 20% drop in tourist revenues over the following year – in part this was a realistic assessment of the economic recession hitting Barbados’ main tourist markets (the City of London, Canada, and the West Indies) and in part a wake up call to an industry still talking about a Barbados exception and the resilience of the “high-end”. Seeing the collapse of Aston Martin sales and "posh" building company, Robert Ellis, I now think I was being conservative.


When in London the source of most insight is your London cabbie. At the end of November when I was passing through London, one told me that "a couple weeks ago business had dropped off a cliff” and sure enough, a few weeks later, the November economic statistics revealed some of the steepest drops in consumption and production in the industrial economies. Last Tuesday my London cab driver told me that “business is worse than dire. All the Christmas parties have been cancelled.”
For some reason the Caribbean tourist establishment always reaches for the same rescue blanket – subsidise air tickets. They seem to be addicted to this seemingly quick fix, but this strategy will inevitably fail the long-run goal of preserving the net value the islands get from tourism. Quite apart from the potential long-term damage to our branding (you will never see “The Four Seasons” selling discounted hotel rooms) this crisis is not about Barbados/Grenada/St Lucia becoming relatively expensive and requiring a subsidy to make to more competitive, it is about a loss of income of our core customers. In short, there is not a great deal a small island can do to withstand this kind of external shock, but there are a few, important things.

One of the key criteria for initiatives is that they have longer-term benefit as well as bringing short-term benefit. (Subsidising “bums on seats” fails that test.) Another criteria is about supporting national income during the crisis.
Normally the best way of getting income into an economy quickly is through construction spending. Construction workers are paid cash and they spend it. The number of immigrants who man the construction teams complicates this story, but we must also be very careful about selecting projects that will improve our long-term economic capacity. No bridges to nowhere, please. This is the time for the government to embark on a project to make an island become a “wireless island”, where there is free wireless-Internet connection everywhere on the island below certain bandwidth. This would spur business activity, increase local sourcing, support entrepreneurism and general knowledge transfer and shift the brand of an island towards a more business friendly place. There are many other business facilitation initiatives the government could push through in the unity of a crisis. Better flood defenses so that heavy rains seen this season are less disruptive in the future would also be a good choice of infrastructure investment. This is the time to consider expensive, alternative energy projects like wind and solar farms. The islands could also do with a new school and hospital here and there. Construction spending will not reach all parts of the citizenry and a one-off welfare and reverse tax credit payment would help too.

Governments will worry about the impact this will have on the fiscal position and by extension the balance of payments. I think there is some confusion here. Deficits are easy to fund in a recession – people have few other places to put their money. A budget deficit of 5% would be funded, though, it would have been far easier to fund, if the Barbados government had followed my advice in the months before October to over-fund the deficit when there was local liquidity. That liquidity has now disappeared as I predicted it would - though this was an easy prediction to make. The problem is making sure that fiscal deficits are not ingrained in the system, but fall back as quickly as they rise. I readily admit this is easier said than done. Expenditures have to be delivered in one-off form and not for consumption purposes.
Barbados’ balance of payments will come under pressure, but not because of the fiscal deficit.

The Barbados current account deficit was not financed by purchases of government bonds as a result of faith in the fiscal position, it was funded by real estate and real-estate related inflows from the UK and Trinidad. UK purchases were bolstered by a UK housing boom and a strong pound. Both are now gone. Trinidadian purchases were based on a strong petro-economy that will face challenges with oil prices around half of the level budgeted for. A slowing economy will help by reducing our import bill, but only at the expense of rising unemployment or underemployment. Overseas funded PFI projects to build infrastructure that will either generate or save foreign exchange revenues, like wind/solar infrastructure, toll roads, paid-for Internet access, would help the balance of payments in the short and long-term.


Another important idea that will help manage the crisis and will do wonders to an island's business brand was put forward by Barbadian entrepreneur Sir Ralp (Bizzy) Williams at the national consultation. The idea is not new. Bizzy argues that if there is a 20% shortfall in revenue say, instead of cutting 20% of the workforce and increasing unemployment, with the associated social ills, firms would commit to keeping workers on if they agree to work one less day a week and take home one day’s less wages (20%). Left like this and workers are taking all of the hit, but spreading it around themselves. They should negotiate conditions that ensure managers share some of the pain too. Managers could agree to participate in the 20% wage cut without the day off. If governments could support private initiatives like this, using their good offices as a broker, it would be a tangible result of social partnership and transform the business reputation from inflexible to flexible overnight.

There are three things to do then. First, try and arrange international PFI for construction projects that will boost long-term revenues or reduce expenditures like wind/solar infrastructure and a wireless island project. Second, initiate a one-off boost to welfare and reverse-tax credits. Issue a bond to fund this, call it the Solidarity Bond and urge everyone to take part in it, to do their share. Third, let the government act as an honest broker to support employment and wage flexibility agreements.

*********
Avi knows that I am not fully on board with all of these ideas, but it would be useful for the local audience to think about them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Excellent!

Achieving excellence is a very hard process for those who are on the road themselves and for those who accompany the traveller. I have just come back from another brutal training session with a group (today only two) of young players. I have no intention of becoming a great tennis player in the sense that I want to be good, but am realistic in knowing that as I am already over 50, and only started playing five years ago, my chances of making it to the top level are virtually nil, except in the over 55 categories.

The mentors for an athlete, often a coach, are always a mixture of love and hate; when the coach is also the parent, look out. The mentors love to see you improve and they hate to see you under perform: they know how hard you have worked and wonder where all of the consistency, flair, fight, etc. have gone when they watch the limp rag performance against a no-hoper. For this story, my mentor is Sydeny Lopez, a former Barbados Davis Cup player, who has now graduated from mentor to TORmentor. But, with his cute baby face, how could you not like him?

As I left the training after my one hour session this morning, my "mentor" asked me to assess my year and where my tennis had gone since I started working with him. Actually, it's not been anywhere near a year, but it seems like a decade!

In a word, it has been painful. I know that one object that he has is that if I decide to help train Miss Bliss that I will teach her good technique.So, he has reconstructed my game to be not a modified squash player trying to play tennis: I naturally slice the ball with a one-handed backhand, and it dips wickedly as a result, but I need to know how to drive the ball, so I have had to learn how to play with a double-handed shot. Unnatural? I'd say. I carry my racket low, as one does on a squash court--in part to avoid hitting your opponent in the face or head, but on the tennis court, the racket needs to start high, then go low, then end high. My body is hurting today, not because of these changes but because in his effort to make me good, I have to drive myself even harder. We do not have bodies that heal rapidly like the teenagers, and if we are injured, the healing takes much, much longer. But, we have what the teens do not have: muscle memory from when we were their age and many things work just the same now as then, and although the speed of movement is less, we can show that we are not slouches. We have done it before and have to believe we can do it again. So, what do I say about my mentor? Under my breath, I mutter, "This will get better." I don't cry, but I do cry out. And at the end of a brutal session of "Give me one more. Give me one more. One more and you're done. That's out. I need it in. One more like that. Throw away the left hand. Bend that elbow. Good. Punch that elbow...." I look to the ground, wipe the sweat from my bottom lip, take a deep breath, and go to pick up balls.

The church bell rings. Escape! Seven o'clock. Time for me to make my exit, and check that Miss Bliss is ready for school. Everything is burning in my legs. My breath is fast but not uncontrolled. Sweat slides into the corner of my mouth, and tastes bitter. "I'll try to see you again later this afternoon and maybe tomorrow morning," I yell over my shoulder as I go to my car. What did I say? Am I on some medication that makes me amnesiac in minutes? The paunch that I had that had spurred me a few weeks ago to decide to go on a boot camp crack with tennis training, wobbles a little, as if it is laughing at me. "How do you fell, buddy?" my right leg asks my left hand. "Pretty sore, man. Pretty sore. I need ice. How about you? I feel bad, but I'm passing the pain on to the butt," groans my hand. But I feel better than one of my similarly aged friends who had his treatment last week (see photo alongside).

I reflect on the young player with whom I had warmed up this morning. He should have been able to put the ball on a rope to me again and again and again. But he hit one good ball, one bad ball, another bad ball, one good ball, one to the left, one in the sky. Does he have no sense that he needs to be able to hit the same spot time and again? Maybe he will get there and figure out that it's not about force, but about accuracy; it's not the flash, it's the final good shot. It's not the inches outside the court with a shot that was so good looking that it could be a highlight reel; it's the shot that is an inch inside the court that looks so boring that even a sloth would think that the stroke needed waking up. Does this young man have what it takes to put his body through the wringer, or does he believe that he can coast forever?

Although the pain is all about me, and the mental anguish is all about me, the improvement is shared. How do I feel after a decade of this that passed in a few months? If only I could share the pain. Agony! But agony plaited with so much pleasure. Really? Oh, yeah. My backhand is going in--down the line, cross court, lob. My forehand is regular and on fire when the ball comes to me short; I don't fear trying to hit it, and don't accept a little dink over the net. Coming to take the volley? Watch me pass you. "Aouhgnn! Yes!"

Have to thank the mentor. Sydeny, have a great Christmas and may Santa bring all you need. I don't want anything except good weather in Nassau so that I can show off my new stuff. Oh, and by the way, my inspiration is higher because I did break the mentor's service during the tournament.Sorry, had to get that in. Good ball! I am no longer afraid of his game. Bring it on!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chips Off The Blog.

I dislike housework intensely, but sometimes I have to do it. This morning, I was intrigued by the statistics for readership of this blog. I can see each day from where people tap into the rich vein of my writing. In broad terms, most of the readers are from North America (the USA supplies over 30%, mainly from the east and central USA), and Barbados makes up 20%. But I have readership stretching around the globe, in Europe (especially the UK), into Africa, through the Middle East, Asia and into Australia. If I look at precise locations, I can see Qatar and Israel, which are intriguing, and Mumbai, Karlskrona (Sweden).

I'm shocked that the site manages to get about 3200 visitors a month, not unique necessarily, and they include me, but I am not boosting my own stats.

But I am very small pototoes and curiosity killed the cat. I had to dig deeper.

Technocrati reports regularly on 'the state of the blogsphere', and note that around 16 million blogs exist (it could now be closer to 20 million) [see latest report for 2008
]. Taking a few of the statistics and comparisons they highlight:

Most bloggers are male and age under 35 (oops, I'm out of my age bracket big time, but I am young at heart). Most blogs are personal (I fit). Most bloggers are fully employed (not just blogging) and highly educated (well, of course). Most bloggers, by a large margin, are NOT single (do relationships drive people to blog?). Anyway, over your coffee or wine or late afternoon aperatif, you can look at the snapshot a bit more.

comScore MediaMetrix (August 2008)

  • Blogs: 77.7 million unique visitors in the US
  • Facebook: 41.0 million | MySpace 75.1 million
  • Total internet audience 188.9 million
eMarketer (May 2008)
  • 94.1 million US blog readers in 2007 (50% of Internet users)
  • 22.6 million US bloggers in 2007 (12%)
Universal McCann (March 2008)
  • 184 million have started a blog | 26.4 US
  • 346 million read blogs | 60.3 US
  • 77% of active Internet users read blogs
All Blogs Are Not Created Equal
  • Take a quick journey into the size of the Blogosphere

    Technorati Authority

Global Snapshot of Bloggers

Demographics U.S. Bloggers
(N=550)
European Bloggers
(N=350)
Asian Bloggers
(N=173)
Male 57% 73% 73%
Age


18-34 years old 42% 48% 73%
35+ 58% 52% 27%
Single 26% 31% 57%
Employed full-time 56% 53% 45%
Household income >$75,000 51% 34% 9%
College graduate 74% 67% 69%
Average blogging tenure (months) 35 33 30
Median Annual Investment $80 $15 $30
Median Annual Revenue $200 $200 $120
% Blogs with advertising 52% 50% 60%
Average Monthly Unique Visitors 18,000 24,000 26,000

Segment Snapshot of Bloggers

Demographics Personal
(N=1015)
Corporate
(N=156)
Professional
(N=590)
With Advertising
(N=695)
No Advertising
(N=595)
Male 64% 70% 72% 66% 66%
Age




18-34 years old 52% 45% 48% 53% 45%
35+ 48% 55% 52% 47% 55%
Single 36% 24% 31% 34% 34%
Employed full-time 52% 51% 55% 49% 56%
Household income>$75k 37% 49% 42% 40% 37%
College graduate 70% 74% 74% 69% 72%
Average blogging tenure (months) 35 35 38 35 33
Median Annual Investment $100 $200 $150 $100 0
Median Annual Revenue $120 $250 $300 $200 0
% Blogs with Advertising 53% 64% 59% 100% 0%
Average Monthly Unique Visitors 12,000 39,000 44,000 46,000 4,000

Global Bloggers by Gender

Demographics Female
(N=438)
Male
(N=852)
Personal Blog 83% 76%
Professional Blog 38% 50%
Age

18-24 years old 9% 15%
25+ 91% 85%
Single 29% 36%
Employed full-time 44% 56%
Median Annual Investment $30 $60
Median Annual Revenue $100 $200
% Blogs with advertising 53% 54%
Sell Through a Blog ad Network* 16% 7%
Have Affiliate ads* 41% 32%
Have Contextual ads* 61% 73%
* Among those with advertising on their blogs

The numbers vary but agree that blogs are here to stay, but they are being challenged by the opportunities to post stories in social networking sites (such as 'Notes' in Facebook), which I have regarded as backdoor blogging and if we were unionized would be the reason for a work-to-rule or wild cat strike. Our mantra could be, "Don't let Facebook hog the blog." Try it.

So, sorry to have started you off with a little brain exercise this morning, but after a great night's partying and a buzz still in my body, why should you get off free?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Virtually Done Redux.


If we could type like this would that make us happier? Click on the image to see it in larger form.

Many styles are available, and the software is easy to download for free (see link).

Virtually Done.

Social networking on the Internet really took off this decade, with the creation of MySpace (2003) and Facebook (2004). From their limited beginnings--in the case of Facebook, from just Harvard College, then just a few Ivy League colleges, then just students--they now can be used by almost any one or group.

I remember subscribing to Facebook in 2006 and my stepdaughter told me then to not go snooping around her profile. I had no idea what she was talking about at the time, and never went further than enrolling. Several months ago a friend, whom I met here in Barbados through our daughters being in the same class at school, mentioned at a kid's birthday party that Facebook was a great way to share photographs. I had struggled for years to be a sort of unofficial family pictorial chronicler, and had to deal with the clunkiness of trying to send images by e-mail (fine for a few, horror if many) or putting them onto a compact disc so that others could copy them. I never got into using things like Kodak gallery, where pictures are uploaded and then sent to an e-mail group. If I had, perhaps I would not have pursued Facebook. But once I discovered sharing the pictures on Facebook I discovered what others do, that you can discover other people, some of whom you knew a long time ago, and some that you are just getting to know.

But social networking is of course not new. As described in the language of intellectuals, it is a social structure formed of 'nodes' (points, made up of individuals, groups, organizations) connected by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as kinship, trade of goods and services, values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, etc. There should be no big mystery about networks. Families are great examples, as are neighbourhoods, which we can extend from the hamlet to the big city, to the country, to the world.

Networks have existed as long as more than one being inhabited our planet, and they are very evident and sometimes easier to understand and observe in the animal kingdom than they are amongst humans. Networks exist in other living things, and can be observed in the way that plants 'organize' themselves to either mutually support or find support from other things. Think about the way that plants use colour and pollen to attract insects to help propagation; or think about the way that certain plants can dominate a landscape. But let me put the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees to one side and focus on people.

As is common with language development, the current use of a word can often lead us to forget its true origin. 'Virtual' has its root in 'virtue', meaning strong (or in the old-fashioned world, manly) or true. So, it was once apt to say that the king was virtual, meaning he was strong and maybe morally correct. By contrast, saying the queen had virtue meant that she was chaste (NOT chased). Usage of the word has given 'virtual' the meaning 'almost something but not the real thing'. In one of its frequent appearances, 'virtual reality' means NOT real, and as science develops we can now don glasses that allow us to see a world other than that in which we actually live. A hologram is a good example of virtual reality, where you see the image of someone or something not the thing itself; like a dream but we can enjoy or dread the image while awake. But, more simply, one can think of photographs and books as representations of virtual reality--the words and images merely give an impression of what is or was. Some people still fear photographs because they think the are the real person extracted into a machine.

But 'virtual' has now become almost synonymous with things related to the Internet and what we affectionately call 'cyberspace'--the world of modern technology. Many of us greatly enjoyed the latest in virtual politics, when CNN's John King regaled us with his interactive political maps during the US presidential election campaign. There was no need to walk the streets to know what was going on.



In the past, social networks were kept together by many forms of contact: basically actual (eg, direct face-to-face meetings and visits), or virtual (meetings between surrogates, letters and other written communications). I use virtual here in the modern way.

But do we network socially in a different way through the space provided by Facebook? Someone posed this question with regard to its use by children (let's call these the pre-teens through to the twenty-somethings) and parents/adults. My own limited research amongst the friends I have who use Facebook suggests that the 'children' I know are very expressive both in terms of pictures and written content--foul language is not a barrier, nor are pictures that would surely embarrass if put out into a different public space. Adults and parents tend to be more circumspect, even intellectual, sharing pictures that are varied but rarely likely to embarrass now or later. Adults tend to share 'knowledge' about family and events, which may include articles from other sources or their own 'notes' that describe or comment on a range of issues, with or without their own comments, from which can spring sometimes a rich dialogue. But, children do this too, but with a different flourish and a lot of coded language. However, in essence, I do not find much real difference between children and adults except in content. It is hard to say if one group uses the space more than another, and looking at number of posts is not a good guide; frequency seems to be about individual time organization. Many of the children seem to 'chat' a lot through Facebook. Through Facebook it is easy to hold a 'dialogue' with whoever wants to read it.

I cannot tell if people use Facebook for more illicit things. We have read of cases where organizations have consulted Facebook to investigate behaviour (see Princeton's Public Safety admission). But, given that there is really no censorship, illicit images can be posted easily and the site can be used for illicit purposes.

One of Facebook's features is messaging, but as far as I understand these are private (at least to the Facebook public) if limited to direct contact with another user. But like everything on the Internet, the trace is there on a server somewhere, and someone may be watching or at least able to see, if the desire or need was there. So, as they say so often with e-mail exchanges, 'If you would be embarrassed to see the message in print don't send it'. Wikipedia reports a lot of cases where Facebook has been used to investigate crimes, including possible murder.

Facebook has 'walls': a space on every user's profile page that allows friends to post messages for the user to see. A user's wall is visible to anyone who is able to see that user's profile, which depends on their privacy settings.

Facebook has 'news feed', which appears on every user's homepage and highlights information including profile changes, upcoming events, and birthdays related to the user's friends. Initially, the this feature caused dissatisfaction among Facebook users; some complained it was too cluttered and full of undesired information, while others were concerned it made it too easy for other people to track down individual activities (such as changes in relationship status, events, and conversations with other users). In response to this dissatisfaction, Facebook issued an apology for the site's failure to include appropriate customizable privacy features. Since then, users have been able to control what types of information are shared automatically with friends. Users, if they so desire, are now able to prevent friends from seeing updates about different types of activities, including profile changes, wall posts, and newly added friends.

Facebook has 'notes', a blogging feature that allowed tags and embeddable images, like photographs.

Following one of my mottoes, "Only connect", I use Facebook to connect people whom I know know each other but seem to have not found each other on Facebook.

I was fascinated to find out yesterday that some parents are not friends with their children on Facebook because the latter do not this that is 'cool'. I don't know if I am odd in being friends with my children, and even using them as a source of finding other friends amongst children I know from earlier days.

I do not do a lot of searching for friends, though if I make a contact I ask if the person is on Facebook. But I have been found by, and found, old friends through Facebook, the strangest being someone I knew when I was 6 years old, who still lives in England. His daughter found me. A Google search will now let you know if someone has a Facebook profile.

Most things that happen on Facebook can be followed by e-mail, with notifications, which can be transferred to a mobile phone, so one can remain connected to the Facebook activities without being at a computer.

Limitations are important. I use 'friends only' as my default and then decide if within that group I want to customize to only a few people; somethings are not really for all friends to share. But, some of what I share with my friends they may wish to share with their friends, and as far as I can see there is nothing within Facebook to stop that. Generally, that's not something I do, but I note that while those who are not friends cannot get access to my profile, what I do need not be seen or read by them. Maybe someone will develop some autodestruct software for such transfers.

People can see when you are online, which is better than a phone, and use a messaging feature, but it seems to work only when online. A lady who helped me last week about whom I wrote last week sent me a message, but I was offline and never received it.

Most of my generation grew up in places where the telephone was the main way to connect quickly to people one could not see or visit easily; though we know that many used the phone in place of direct contact. In earlier times, the speediest things were letters and telegrams, and depending on where you lived, they could move quite slowly. I remember the hullabaloo when a telegram arrived, as it usually meant really important news like a death or a birth. Letters were and still are great to get, but most of my generation do not write letters but exchange constantly and sometimes at length by e-mail. The computer allows us to replace the telephone with features that allow us to talk to others connected to their computers (using software such as Skype, Gmail, Yahoo Messenger, etc).

If you are well-travelled and have friends and family dotted all over the world, modern technology, including networking sites like Facebook, shrink the world. I have managed to stay in touch with lots of developments with my family (Canada, US, Jamaica, Tortola, UK, Barbados, and wherever they travel) and friends (France, Guinea, Vietnam, US, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, UK, Belgium, Madagascar, Senegal, and wherever they travel). We cannot talk on the phone with convenience because of time differences, work schedules, school schedules, moods, state of health, and other restrictions and limitations, but we have managed to share a lot about developments in our lives. I feel very connected to these people. If we are so inclined, the information is there to be consulted at our leisure.

The virtual is not real, but it can help us greatly enjoy the real. The virtual is not all virtue, but what is? The virtual is not more sinister in its intrinsic form than anything that someone wishes to misuse. Nevertheless, it is not for everyone to embrace, but those I know who have embraced the social networking in this virtual form seem to be very content with its results.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rubbing Shoulders.

I have never figured out why people get excited about "celebrities". I can understand how certain positions in our society lead us to give respect, adulation, or other positive responses, as well as disgust, criticism, and a wave of negative reactions to certain individuals. Note, also, that our (western, capitalist) society tends to give these reactions to only certain types. Rare is it that we "celebrate" someone just for being good, like a nurse, or the dustman (garbage collector). We don't fall down on our knees, literally or metaphorically, for someone who has great religious credentials. Those days are long gone. We may even have forgotten how to love or revile our own relatives. Great Uncle Ned, who went to prison for stealing chickens back in 1880, is forgotten for Michael Vick and his sad story of dog baiting or O.J. Simpson and trying to steal back his memorabilia. Grandma Delores, whose recipe for roast lamb is the envy of the island, and has been passed down the family and is savoured every month, gets less recognition than a foul-mouthed, white-coated English chef who says "P*** off" in a Cockney accent on TV, and whose food you've never tasted.

We look for stars--rising or falling--and increasingly it seems, the less they actually produce or do for the rest of society that can be called good, the better. Look at Britney Spears. Why? Oh, she's spotted getting at the airport, looking again as if she is having trouble managing her life. Look at me. I'm pathetic too.

Politicians also get a good mixture of both reactions, not least because some of us had put our trust in them with our votes, or had shown our dislike for them with the lack of our votes: just look at the Governor of Illinois (Rod Blagojevich--hard to pronounce), with his 'potty' mouth, and his wife (for whom no one voted) who seems to have been more than a partner for life. Yikes! America seems to provide us with more than enough examples on the negative side. Look at Governor Spitzer--a man who clearly had no idea how to get value for money: you paid how much for some sexual titillation? Look at Senator Ted Stevens (Alaska)--bribes, what bribes?

But, I just don't understand the "fanaticism", such as wanting to hang around a hotel lobby to see Beyonce walk by. Actually, my hormones can understand that, but my brain does not. Why would I want to get a closer look at Denzil Washington, and hang around for hours hoping that he will walk by, or get all frothy and like a baby with my food when I see him at an adjacent table in a restaurant? I've seen the guy in films, close up too. What do I expect to see now? That he is only 4 feet 6 inches and has been fooling us by wearing Cuban heels? I visited Bequia last summer and someone mentioned that he came there in his yacht occasionally. I was dipping in the sea at the time, and I have not bathed since. Imagine. My feet in the same sea as Denzil's yacht.

I've been to a presidential inauguration ball (I palled around with Capitol Hill lobbyists), and I saw up close and a bit too personally the Gores with that famous kiss; I could almost taste it. It did not make a politician of me. I once trained in the same running camp as Linford Christie; I think I even beat him in some drills. Yet, I never got to be Olympic, World, European or C0mmonwealth Champion in the 100 metres. I went to Mexico in 1986 and visited the England football team in their hotel; I saw Diego Maradona up close and very personal over some chicharon (fried pork skin) before the final game, which his team, Argentina, then won. Yet, I have no World Cup medal to my name. My hair--or lack of it--makes me now resemble England footballing great, Bobby Charlton, though. Was that because we spoke when we met in Mexico City?

Look at me. I have had my share of personal fame and it continues. I've won athletic championships; my name is in the records book---can't take that away from me. I played football at a high level and had my sweat mix with that of international players, even shared a bath with a few. Cooooooo!

On a lesser scale, but up there, nonetheless, I got a letter published in the Barbados Advocate this week: it was my view on work and the benefits of telecommuting, spurred by a flash of stream of consciousness writing. Now, truth is that a liming buddy mentioned it to me last night; he and others shook my hand; they know good writing when they see it. That's as much pay as I could expect. For some reason, my assiduous reading of the papers had overlooked my own moment in the sunlight. It was on Wednesday and .... I've been on the radio a few times over the past few months. Sure, when I go to the school yard I have to deal with the adulation of other parents back-slapping me, or some children yelling "Uncle Dennis! I hear you in the radio. You're famous." After any of these instances I have to admit that I do feel a rush of pleasure: most of us like recognition. But I would be shocked to see people camping outside my house, or blocking my car, or pressing their underwear on me to sign, or other "foolishness". Hello, it's still me, guy. Bumbling, grumbling, laughing, crying, eating, sleeping, just like I used to. I don't even have the right to say that I am worth more; I certainly don't get offered any money more than I did before, and that's a big fat zero anyway.

We know that there is a large vicarious element of our lives. Association with important events or people rubs off, we believe. After some disaster, we can hear, "Last Monday I was on that same flight that crashed yesterday. Imagine that." So, what? You were not in the crash. Going back to the Denzil moments, what do we think is so special about saying, "Denzil Washington was in 'Nobu' when we had dinner there the other night. He was eating the same sushi dish as me! Feeding himself with his own chop sticks. I thought these stars all had helpers." Why would I think of myself as so honoured to be in the presence of someone I had seen in a film? I'm at a loss. If I said that I had read President-elect Obama's books that would have less eye-opening appeal than if I said that he and I had palled around on the basketball court in Chicago.

I can be pretty stupid myself, so why would I want to get excited about some wild escapade by some movie star? Come on! When my daughter crashed the car into our house, with not even a drop of alcohol in her system, why would I not think of that as being a major event and not better to be associated with that when some overpaid athletes crashes on the highway and get charged for driving under the influence?

Why would I want to think so little of myself that I could not wait to say that I was standing in someone else's shadow?

I dont think that I am narcissistic, but I am certainly not going to fawn over anyone. Least of all someone I do not really know. That said, I do plan to be in Washington DC on Inauguration Day next January. I will be a part of history, especially if I can score a ticket to see the swearing in. If not, I will have live with the fact that I was there for that day. But, I do not presume that my longing to see President-elect Obama become the 44th President of the United States will rub off on me in any way other than to say that I was present. I'll wave and yell like a lunatic and maybe he'll see and hear me and hail me next time we meet for a jog on the Washington Mall. I can hear it now: "Yo! DJ. Howya doin'?"