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Diamond Smuggling, Nigeria’s 419 Scam and South Africa’s Post-Apartheid Organized Crime Problem

April 14th, 2012 No comments


The next time you check your spam folder and see a stack of emails promising you the “kind grace assistance fee of USD 10000000000000″ if you assist a helpless African widow with the transfer of funds from her late husband’s Swiss bank account, I hope you’ll put the irresistible Nigerian earworm “I Go Chop Your Dollar” on your playlist and sing along, just for LOLZ.

The video below is a truly weird “remix” of the song — a mash-up of pro-financial-crime and anti-financial-crime propaganda. It centers on the 419 scam, aka the “advance fee” scam, a variation on the classic con The Spanish Prisoner. The culture of 419 scamming has had at least as big an impact on Nigerian culture as bank robbery did in the depths of the U.S. Great Depression. While the scam did not originate in Nigeria, it was popularized there in the era of the fax machine; with the internet, the scheme proliferated to a staggering degree within the country. Since Nigeria is so populous that 1 in 6 Africans is Nigerian, that’s a hell of a lot of people running 419 scams — which still net billions of dollars every year.


 

“I Go Chop Your Dollar” may be the most famous Nigerian song of all time outside Nigeria, but it’s still (mostly) only really famous within Nigeria and among international financial cops. (And a small batch of hipsters.) “I Go Chop Your Dollar” celebrates the 419 scam as an anti-Colonialist act of liberation. In the above video, it’s been subtitled and mashed up by some (apparenty also Nigerian) anti-419 propagandist with a strange vignette about a young 419 scammer getting arrested and handcuffed with a “Wha-happen!?!?” look on his face. The video’s description on YouTube promises the song “With lyrics and a happy ending,” although I can’t believe the handcuffed guy’s all that happy about it.

According to British journalist Misha Glenny’s 2008 book on international organized crime, McMafia, until recently not a single Nigerian had been arrested within Nigeria for a 419 scam — though hundreds of them were in prison for it in other countries.

The money generated by the scams, combined with oil wealth distributed into the hands of the elite through a corrupt network of foreign investment in Nigeria’s kleptocratic infrastructure, suffused the country with bribes doled out by organized crime groups both small and large. For some years there was little chance that any amount of international pressure could make the Nigerian government arrest Nigerian 419 scammers, because it was much more profitable to take bribes to claim they couldn’t find them.

Since that time, according to Glenny, things have changed substantially, owing to Western pressure. However, the prodigious output of Nigeria’s petroleum industry and the willingness of oil-hungry China and India to invest in African development means that the U.S., also perpetually oil-desperate, only has so much leverage over Nigerian politics and crime. Basically, if the cost of courting U.S. companies for oil development gets too high, the Nigerian oil industry can tell the Americans to go fuck themselves, a fact that I’m sure does not elude the Nigerians who chortle over the power of the 419 scam.

The song is by Nkem Owoh, a television-film actor and winner of the African Movie Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Owoh is a member of the Igbo ethnic group, this grouping of primarily Christian peoples being one of the three major ethnicities among the Nigerian people — the other two being the northern-based, 95% Muslim Hausa, whose power lies in the business community, and the Yoruba, who dominate the military and are about 50% Muslim, 40% Christian, and 10% animist. Others, like the (also Muslim) Fulani, are still a substantial part of the population, but the big three tend to dominate Nigerian politics. Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, the most widely-read book within modern African literature, is Igbo. Interestingly, one of the cast members of the 1987 Nigerian TV adaptation of Achebe’s famous novel was none other than Nkem Owoh, who sings “I Go Chop Your Dollar.” Another person of Nigerian Igbo descent is the British actor Chiwetel Elijofor, who appeared in Serenity and Children of Men; he played a Nigerian immigrant physician in Dirty Pretty Things, which addresses both Nigerian political corruption and some migration issues that Glenny’s McMafia also covers, but within the context of a truly disturbing noir plot. Another brilliant and too-little-lauded British actor, London-born Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko on “LOST” and Simon Adebisi in the HBO series “Oz”) is of Nigerian Yoruba descent.

I call the Igbo a “super-group” because there are over 200 ethnic groups within Nigeria, and Nigeria is so populous and the Igbo language group so varied in dialects and cultures that suggesting the Igbo are a single group is a little nuts. The group is highly pluralistic in culture, but they mostly tend to be Christian (about 98%). Weirdly, though, there’s also a group of about 40,000 Igbo Jews who claim descent from ancient Israelite migrants.

Anyway, insofar as they can be considered a single group, you could fairly say the Igbo either invented or popularized the 419 scam, with the other ethnic groups in the country following suit — until, basically, the scam is irrevocably considered part of the Nigerian national culture.

But the roots of 419 go far deeper than just sleazy Nigerians tryna scam gullible and greedy Cleveland widows out of their life savings. It has its roots in one of the most tragic and horrifying series of events in the late 1960s — the Biafran war. The predominantly Igbo Southeast seceded and declared itself the independent nation of Biafra. This was done partially because the the country’s vast oil wealth was situated in the region — and the region’s Igbo elite, with the potential for rapid development and a great improvement in quality of life, did not want to be burdened with the rest of the country, which had fewer resources (and, let’s face it, a whole damned lot of poor people.)

Unfortunately, the other two main ethnic groups (or linguistic and cultural groupings, if you prefer) in Nigeria were not keen on this idea.

Since the Yoruba predominated in the military and the Hausa the Nigerian financial community, it was a relatively small matter to bring the full power of Nigeria’s military to bear on Biafra, while the world community sat there scratching its ass. From 1967-1970, about one million Biafran civilians were killed by the war and its resulting famine, even though the Biafran military never numbered more than 30,000.

The grotesque and heartbreaking images of Biafran famine obviously had an impact on a budding International Relations nerd in Boulder, Colorado named Eric Reed Boucher, who was about ten when the images of war hit the American papers. He would later prove morbidly inspired enough by those images bo take as his nom de punk (…wait for it…) Jello Biafra.

JELLOL

Photo by Libertinus Yomango, JELLOL by the author. LOL!

According to Glenny, following the Biafran war, the Igbo region was cut out of the nation’s oil wealth by the victorious Hausa and Yoruba power structure. That encouraged the development in Igbo communities of widespread crime schemes like (among others) the 419 scam.

But where “I Go Chop Your Dollar” celebrates 419 as a “fuck you” to the west, it’s not a matter of independent Nigerians “getting theirs.” The widespread scam requires the participation of corrupt officials, and that takes the kind of weight carried by organized crime syndicates. In fact, the 419 scam’s success brought so much power into the world of Nigerian organized crime that its presence spilled over dramatically into South Africa, a place on the whole other side of the continent.

Nigeria was on one South Africa’s ANC’s main supporters, and one of the most reliable nations in opposing the Apartheid regime. By the time Apartheid finally crumbled, South Africa’s law enforcement and military infrastructure was packed with individual white commanders whose history clearly included an array of brutal actions against black communities and black individuals.

It’s said that Nelson Mandela offered a host of early-pension options to many such upper-level officers in both the law enforcement and military community, to get them the fuck out of the way and start the process of national reconciliation, for which he was lauded worldwide. The problem? White rank-and-file cops and soldiers were not offered the same deal, and they felt screwed. Indoctrinated into a racist system to begin with, they formed — anybody? Bueller? That’s right! Private Security Companies! There had long been a history of private military and security groups in South Africa, owing to the nation’s out-of-control crime rate (which stemmed from extreme poverty in black communities and some white ones). The new private security companies were hired by affluent white communities and white-owned corporations, including many foreign corporations, as Mandela was aggressively inviting foreign investment at the time). With police forces more or less demolished, urban black communities in South Africa were left to fend for themselves, and criminal gangs ran amok.

The crime was (and is) mostly black-on-black, but this was also the time during which the hysteria about carjacking among South Africa’s whites led to the nationwide marketing of side-firing flamethrowers for your Mercedes, Beamer or SUV (LOL!!!) I mean…try to tell me this is not some seriously crazy South African shit:

 



When it comes right down to it, there was some justification for South Africa’s Beamer-driving whites to be scared, because carjacking (run by independent “contractors” who then sold the vehicles to organied crime groups for something like $300 apiece) had indeed become a growth industry. It was sold in the media as a race-based crime, but it wasn’t, exactly. It’s just that organized crime groups would order up specific makes and models of cars, and the most desirable cars in South Africa just happened (happened!) to be driven by whites. See? Nothing to do with race at all. LOL!!

During this time, South Africa’s borders opened wide after decades of very tight border controls, which meant that for the most part only indigenous drugs that could be produced inside the country (like the local brand of bush-grown marijuana) were common. Since Nigeria had been an important political ally in ending Apartheid, a large number of Nigerian immigrants were allowed to settle in South Africa, and they were initially embraced by the South Africans. Yeah…that didn’t last. With 419 wealth, Nigerian organized crime was able to finance its entry into the global drug market, using the business-friendly South Africa as a transshipment point for cocaine going East and heroin going West.

Nowadays, there is a widespread perception within South Africa that most Nigerians are criminals and most criminals in South Africa are Nigerian, a fact that’s on agonizingly obvious display, with just as obvious (to me) racism, in the grotesquely pleased-with-itself ostensibly anti-racist post-Apartheid South African science fiction film District 9. In that film, the white hero guffaws about commiting mass abortion on the eggs of the alien stand-in for South Africa’s blacks, but by the end of the film has had enough of a spiritual transformation to completely screw over his new BFF, alien Christopher Johnson, then think better of it and decide to be a pseudo-hero after he doesn’t have a fucking choice. What better metaphor could be found for many of South Africa’s whites, who — much like racist Americans who don’t think they’re racist — shroud their racism with a (sometimes justifiable) fear for their own safety.

The Nigerian gangs in District 9, as you may recall if you’ve seen the film, are portrayed as subscribing to morbid pseudo-cannibalistic practices based on some flavor of supposed Nigerian mysticism that seems right out of a Victorian penny dreadful or an Indiana Jones flick.

Since the majority of the Nigerian immigrants to South Africa have been Igbo, it’s reasonable to think this idea within the fictional context of the film probably stems from the idea that the Igbo still subscribe to barbaric animist beliefs. But in fact, it has far more to do with the stories coming out of the Second Congo War, in which (reportedly) abducted child soldiers were made to do things like kill and eat their parents in order to give them mystical strength. Similar stories came out of the Second Sudanese Civil War. But even in Congo and Sudan I’ve seen little indication that such practices, if they existed, derive from any indigenous mystical tradition as is implied of the Nigerians in District 9. While Nigerian gangs within South Africa are a terrifying and powerful force for chaos, their portrayal in District 9 seems to have as much to do with the real crime situation in South Africa as David Caruso’s Irish street gang “The Shamrocks” in the first season of Hill Street Blues has to do with The Westies.

During the period that Nigerian organized crime was helping establish South Africa’s post-Apartheid drug trade, all organized crime groups in South Africa were making inroads into the businesses of smuggling and laundering such conflict commodities as diamonds, tanzanite and colton (a rare compound essential in the manufacture of cell phones and personal computers). Most of the non-petrochemical minerals trafficked by organized crime groups originate in war zones. South Africa, is, of course, the place of origin of the international diamond giant De Beers, which was founded by none other than Victorian adventurer Cecil Rhodes. South Africa is also home to many major sources of (essentially legitimate, non-conflict) diamonds. With the rise in organized crime in South Africa, it became one of the critical players in smuggling and laundering these minerals from other production sites like Angola and Sierra Leone, which are banned from the international diamond trade because of the use of alluvial diamonds and forced labor to fund their civil wars. The vast majority of conflict diamonds are generated from alluvial sources, in which diamonds are more or less free-range in river beds or ground close to the surface. Rebel groups like Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, or the arm-chopping Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, can’t afford to invest in digging into buried diamond pipes.

Neither could, for instance, the (…wait for it…) South Africans alleged to have assisted both government-afiliated and RUF smugglers in using forced labor to extract alluvial diamonds first from the Earth and then from the country. That was during the ten-year Sierra Leone Civil War, from 1991-2002. During that time, the RUF in particular instilled terror in their abducted forced laborers by chopping off their hands if they failed to make their diamond-gathering quota. After a while, they got in the habit of chopping limbs off just to do it; according to journalist Greg Campbell’s book Blood Diamonds, there were whole villages in Sierra Leone where the RUF blew in and chopped off everybody‘s arms, both of them, and sometimes their legs, too, leaving a nation littered with multiple amputees.

At this time, the RUF sometimes made its newly-abducted child soldiers them do the chopping, often to people they knew, sometimes including friends their own age who were not selected to fight for whatever reason. This bonded the desperate soldiers to their captors because the atrocities meant they could never just go back to their villages or their families, and so they had little incentive to escape. Similar techniques are often used in rebel groups in Africa drafting child soldiers. According to A Long Way Gone by former RUF child soldier Ismael Beah, the RUF also got its child soldiers hooked on amphetamine pills, and kept them as stoned as possible by feeding them marijuana-laced candies and making them smoke joints.

In that period, the official government of Sierra Leone — which actually controlled virtually none of the country outside the capital, and not all of that — hired South Africa’s Executive Outcomes, a private military company that had begun following the conclusion of the South African Border War. Utilizing both blacks and whites, some of whom originated not in South Africa but in Angola and Namibia, the company’s management had its roots in pre-Apartheid South Africa’s racially mixed 32 Batallion. In the (extremely loose) 2006 film adaptation of Campbell’s book, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a former employee of a company based loosely on Executive Outcomes.

The sad thing, according to Campbell, is that by most accounts Executive Outcomes actually brought a measure of calm back to Sierra Leone, after a period of violence as horrifying as any in Sudan, Congo, or Rwanda. Unfortunately, a white-run South African military company felt sort of, well, you know, kind of icky to the world diplomatic community. And believe me, the world diplomatic community should know all about things that feel icky. International pressure convinced Sierra Leone’s government to kick Executive Outcomes out of the country and bring in a UN peacekeeping force.

Just for the record, if you’re ever a third-world President and the world diplomatic community’s all, like, “Hey, fire the mercenaries and let us bring in UN peacekeepers…pretty please?” you should punch them right in the teeth.

As in the Rwandan Genocide and many other war zones, the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone was about as useful as a professional long-term financial planning advisor at a crack-smoking convention. The “peacekeepers” spent most of their time alternately abusing and ignoring Sierra Leone’s citizens while figuring out how to turn their duty into as profitable an enterprise as possible. With Executive Outcomes gone, the fighting, slaughter, forced labor and child-soldier abduction began anew. LOL!!!

And you know what country provided the primary troops for the UN’s useless “peacekeeping” operation in Sierra Leone? I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t the United States; no, this was during the Clinton years, and let me tell you, if there was one thing Bill Clinton didn’t need, it was for those naughty amputees in Sierra Leone to go all Black Hawk Down on his cracker ass. I mean…he also had this Sudan shit to worry about, right? That Tony Blair prick was really fucking with him over that goddamn Sudanese genocide shit. He’s all, like, “WTF!??!?? I’m s’posed to stop another genocide? As if! Fuck this shit, I need a blowjob.” Clinton (somewhat reasonably, I’ll admit) saw nightmares in his future if he tried to Bubba it up on both sides of a politically disintegrating continent.

Lucky for Clinton and the rest of Team America, another nation volunteered to step in with some gun-toting bad-asses.

Which country? Anyone? Bueller? Bookmark that shit, let’s get back to it.

Anyway, during the period when Executive Outcomes was employed by the Sierra Leone government, it actually managed to stop the RUF’s advances. It returned a measure of power to the officially elected government, and regained control of the diamond fields. That last thing is probably the most important strategically, because diamonds smuggled into Charles Taylor’s Liberia were the chief way the RUF was funding its activities.

And did someone mention diamonds? Yeah, well, y’know, it’s a funny story…Executive Outcomes’ management worked for the Sierra Leone government — which was kinda cash-poor — at a remarkable bargain price.

Why? They did it in return for post-war mineral rights to Sierra Leone’s diamonds — which were impossible to legally sell, owing to their status as conflict diamonds. The Sierra Leone War had become a battle between two nongovernmental groups seeking control of diamonds that absolutely could not be legally marketed.

Then again…why would South African mercenaries want a holy fuckton of Sierra Leone diamonds — if they couldn’t sell them without violating the living shit out of international law?

The thing is, it’s impossible to determine the source of a diamond once it’s been sold, all diamonds sold to the international market must have their country of origin certified by that country’s officials.

Since the security situation made Sierra Leone’s border with Liberia utterly porous, and since Liberia sported one of the most corrupt governments in the world, well…I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Liberia, which always produced a very, very small number of diamonds compared to neighboring Sierra Leone, saw its diamond exports skyrocket to something like ten times their pre-war level during this period. Almost like magic!

But here’s the thing — Liberia’s Charles Taylor had enemies in high places. His fall from international grace came not long after the fall of Apartheid and the resultant ingress of Nigerian gangs into South Africa. Is there a connection? Nah, I’m sure there isn’t, and if there was, who would care? After all, what could diamonds possibly have to do with U.S. security or financial interests?

Thing is, in recent years, according to Glenny’s McMafia, there sure do seem to be a lot of diamonds moving through South Africa. South Africa, for the record, produces a hell of a lot of diamonds, as does neighboring Angola and to some extent Namibia. The Angola-South Africa border is another highly porous one. That was not true in the Apartheid era, when South Africa, as a nation, amounted to a police state. Though the black townships were still largely left to fend for themselves, the borders were rigidly controlled. Of course, with the officer corps of the military and police force having hightailed it into private security companies in the employ of white communities and private military companies like Executive Outcomes, who could stop a little thing like diamond smuggling?

Private companies like DeBeers, which universally employ private security, had and have strong motivation to visibly prevent the ingress of diamond smuggling and control the flow from their sources within South Africa, because if the world community keeps busting their balls over conflict diamonds, it eats up valuable executive time and requires their PR department to play catch-up — and do you have any fucking idea what those pricks bill at?

On the other hand, DeBeers has just as powerful motivation to deal in conflict diamonds under the table. In case you don’t know, DeBeers controls almost absolutely the global price of diamonds by obtaining all they can and hoarding them in places like Amsterdam. The more diamonds they don’t control, the less they can stabilize the price. DeBeers estimates that conflict diamonds are a tiny fraction of the world trade. Greg Campbell and others say they’re something like eight to twelve percent of the circulating global diamond supply. But ten-ish percent seems like more than enough to destabilize the entire diamond market. You do the math.

I see it as kinda like Facebook buying Instagram.

See…it’s not that they want it or need it.

They just don’t want Google to buy it.

And, oh, I guess I should get back to which nation, when the U.N. started busting balls and forcing Sierra Leone to fire Executive Outcomes and admit its completely ineffectual peacekeeping force, took the heat off the U.S. by stepping in with troops?

Anyone? Bueller?

Right! It was Nigeria. LOL!!

As to whether the Nigerian gangs that proliferated in post-Apartheid South Africa were helping smuggle Sierra Leone diamonds as well as South African and Angolan ones, and Afghan-grown heroin bound for Europe and South American cocaine…hell, I don’t know, and I doubt anyone else does, either.

I mean, we’ve all got bigger fish to fry, right? Within post-Apartheid South Africa, organized crime appears to still depend on keeping the races separate. And according to the Wall Street Journal’s former West Africa correspondent Douglas Farah in his 2004 book Blood From Stones, even the United States government was at best schizophrenic in its opinion as to whether it gave a damn that members of the largely Lebanese Shiite diamond-selling community in Liberia had been trading, in the months prior to September 11, 2001, with what local Africans called the “bad Lebanese” — or, to put it only a little more diplomatically, weird-twitchy persons of apparently Arab descent. These turned out to be members of Al Qaeda, including, it seems, direct representatives of Osama Bin Laden and other top members of affiliated terrorist groups. High-level members were anticipating poking the American tiger in the eye, and they thought it might, you know, freak out and start invading countries or something. (More on that in a moment.) Therefore, top Al Qaeda folks wanted to convert their money into assets that couldn’t be frozen by international law enforcement — and the primary on-site merchants in West Africa’s diamond trade were at the time almost entirely expats from Lebanon’s minority Shiite community.

And we all know that a diamond is the gift that keeps on giving.

Farah’s Blood From Stones describes the author’s absolutely bewildering experience with U.S. investigators both immediately before and after September 11, 2001. It was somewhat like getting a series of unannounced proctological exams. U.S. officials showed randomly-alternating disinterest and hostility for Farah’s findings, and even outed one of his informants at one point, almost getting him killed.

At times, American officials seemed impatient and confused about why the hell Farah would want to bug them with this shit about diamonds and “bad Lebanese.”

Diamonds? What could African diamond smuggling possibly have to do with American political interests? What could they have to do with the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen? What could diamonds have to do with the Taliban?

It’s a good damned question. What could they have to do with Nigerian pop music, Nelson Mandela, bad science fiction or ’80s punk rock?

This is some James Burke shit right here. Did anybody else just get chills?

Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, “I Go Chop Your Dollar” remains a classic. Depending on how your Nigerian English is, you may appreciate these lyrics. Mine’s pretty rusty, but I’ve attempted a translation below. The subtitles on the video appear to have gotten some of them slightly wrong. However, I know fuck-all of Nigerian English, which is a pidgin of colonial English and various ethnic languages — of which, again, there are something like 200 within Nigeria, most of them in the three main linguistic groups.

 

I Go Chop Your Dollar

I don suffer no be small

Upon say I get sense

Poverty no good at all, no

Na im make I join this business

419 no be thief, its just a game

Everybody dey play am

If anybody fall mugu, ha! my brother I go chop ‘em.

Chorus

National Airport na me get am

National Stadium na me build am

President na my sister brother

You be the mugu, I be the master

Oyinbo I go chop your dollar, I go take your money dissapear

Video Clip from: Osuofia – I Go Chop Your Dollar – A clip from the video. 419 is just a game, you are the loser I am the winner

The refinery na me get am,

The contract, na you I go give am

But you go pay me small money make I bring am

you be the mugu, I be the master… na me be the master ooo!!!!

When Oyinbo play wayo, them go say na new style

When country man do im own, them go de shout bring am, kill am, die!

Oyinbo people greedy, I say them greedy

I don see them tire thats why when them fall enter my trap o!

I dey show them fire

In other words (as best I can cobble together a translation, knowing, again, fuck-all of Nigerian English):

I don suffer no be small (I won’t suffer and be made to feel small)

Upon say I get sense (When I got smart I realized)

Poverty no good at all, no (Poverty sucks)

Na im make I join this business (I decided I’m going into business)

419 no be thief, its just a game (The 419 scam is not stealing, it’s a game)

Everybody dey play am (Everybody in Nigeria plays it)

If anybody fall mugu, ha! my brother I go chop ‘em. (If anybdoy’s stupid enough to fall for it, my friend, I’ll steal from them)

National Airport na me get am (The 419 scam built the National Airport)

National Stadium na me build am (The 419 scam built the National Stadium)

President na my sister brother (The President, my sister, my brother, they all do it)

You be the mugu, I be the master (If you’re enough of a dipshit, I’ll be your master)

Oyinbo I go chop your dollar, I go take your money dissapear (White man, I’ll steel your dollar…I’ll take your money and disappear)

419 is just a game, you are the loser I am the winner (419 is just a game, you are the loser, I am the winner, duh)

The refinery na me get am, (The 419 scam built the refineries)

The contract, na you I go give am (Now I, am the businessman, Westerner, not you)

But you go pay me small money make I bring am (But you try to exploit me, and I screw you)

You be the mugu, I be the master… na me be the master ooo!!!! (You’re the dumbshit, I’m the master! Yah, I’m the master, ooo!!!!!)

When Oyinbo play wayo, them go say na new style (When white people try to trick us, they’re going to learn)

When country man do im own, them go de shout bring am, kill am, die! (When a hick like me screws them, the white people get pissed off and shout “I’m gonna kill him!”)

Oyinbo people greedy, I say them greedy (White people are greedy, I’m telling you, they’re greedy)

I don see them tire thats why when them fall enter my trap o! (White people are never going to change, and that’s why when they walk into my trap)

I dey show them fire. (I give them what-for.)

Nigerian English is — for all its incomprehensibility to Americans — English. Clearly, a certain population in Nigeria is internet-savvy (hence the popularity of the 419 scam). Therefore, it’s relatively easy to find pages in Nigerian through Google, but it takes some work to understand it. It’s the grammar that always really throws me, but the terms in the song, generally, are common ones. They also fascinatingly illuminate Nigerian culture. “Oyinbo,” for instance, really just means “man,” but it’s a term for white man, not generally considered derogatory. Otherwise I would have translated it (with great relish) as the American term “honkey.”

Wayo is an interesting word in its usage here. In Nigerian English it means “trickery.” But it also means “footprint” in Swahili, and I have no idea if that’s it’s original etymology. Swahili is spoken in East Africa, not West Africa, but African Swahili proponents tried to make it a trans-African lingua franca in the ’60s and ’70s, and East-West migration in sub-Saharan Africa is pretty common.

How did the term “wayo” go from “footprint” to “trickery,” and from Swahili to Nigerian English? Or does it have another point of origin entirely? I haven’t the foggiest.

But then, words are the least of Africa’s commodities that have bewilderingly complex and untraceable provenance.

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Feel the Power of the Bark Side

January 23rd, 2012 No comments

Yes, it’s true, Volkswagen has finally realized exactly what its target market wants: dogs barking the Imperial Theme from the Star Wars movies. In a piece of viral marketing so brilliant it’s annoying — even above and beyond how annoying it is to hear dogs barking familiar classics — two beloved companies (Volkswagen and Lucasfilm) have proven themselves to be consummate media whores, shamelessly offering consumers a “double” for the price of nothing. Only, as you probably know, when real whores offer a double, they usually take precautions against viruses, especially if it’s a freebie. Here, I’m left infected with a viral earworm that is as incurable as it is adorable.

Of course, anything involving animals online, no matter how cute, inspires accusations of animal cruelty. It generates some bizarrely incoherent comments:

One illustrative comment:

would you please tell me why it is cruel to make a dog bark?

Its response:

Because my dad always makes puppy go loud. I mean loudest before he cooks them…. do you have problemo???

Wow, people rock! In case you’re one of those (apparently many) people worried that these pooches have been hooked up to some insidious device that makes them bark on command with a certain pitch, uhhhh…no. The footage is created by clever audio looping, not animal experimentation…just like the world’s most annoying Christmas recording, of dogs barking “Jingle Bells.”

There’s also the obligatory “responses” — from people who videotaped their dogs’ responses to the Imperial Theme video. It’s almost as if Volkswagen and Lucasfilm knew that consumers would take over their work for them.

Well played, Herr Vader. Well played.

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Robowarden Patrols South Korean Prison

November 27th, 2011 No comments

At the forefront of robot technology and eyeballing lucrative export markets for their potentially world-conquering automatons, South Korea has designed robots for some really sketchy tasks, like shooting people. Now in the eastern South Korean city of Pohang, the government is planning a month-long trial with robot prison guards. According to the BBC, they will “monitor inmates for abnormal behavior” Says the BBC:

The three 5ft-high (1.5m) robots involved in the prison trial have been developed by the Asian Forum for Corrections, a South Korean group of researchers who specialise in criminality and prison policies.

It said the robots move on four wheels and are equipped with cameras and other sensors that allow them to detect risky behaviour such as violence and suicide.

Prof Lee Baik-Chu, of Kyonggi University, who led the design process, said the robots would alert human guards if they discovered a problem.

“As we’re almost done with creating its key operating system, we are now working on refining its details to make it look more friendly to inmates,” the professor told the Yonhap news agency.

[Link.]

Because that’s what you want…a “friendly” robotic prison guard with a huge baton and a can of pepper spray. The trial, which will cost half a million pounds Sterling, is just part of a nearly half-billion dollar investment that South Korea’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy has spent on robotic research from 2002-2010.

Relatively few people realize that robotic and artificial intelligence technology is already heavily deployed in the military sector. Those clever American drones deployed with Hellfire missiles are controlled by humans with joysticks, yes…but there’s a certain amount of onboard intelligence, because otherwise the communications lag time would make the drones un-flyable. Getting back to Korea, the BBC story cites “Samsung Techwin’s sale of a robotic surveillance system to Algeria and shipments of the humanoid Hubo robot to six universities in the US.” And while we’re talking about prison wardens and robot hunter-killers, let’s get creepy:

The South Korean defence company DoDAAM is also developing robotic gun turrets for export which can be programmed to open fire automatically.

Within the country English-speaking robotic teaching assistants are already being deployed in some schools to help children to practise their pronunciation.

The Joongang Daily newspaper reported in August that a company called Showbo had begun mass producing a robot that bowed to shop customers and told them about promotions on offer.

Other firms say they hope to start selling robots to help care for the elderly before the end of the decade, and personal assistant robots further down the line.

The government is also building a Robot Land theme park in the north-west city of Incheon to help highlight the country’s success. Planners say they hope 2.8 million people will visit each year.

[Link.]

Guess what? The 22nd Century called. It wants you to send jobs. I’m all for having as much robotic fun as possible, but in the context of mass unemployment, it’s hard for me to get excited about robo-development. And if these robo-boogie-ing wiseacres are going to be operating gun turrets and monitoring my nation’s borders? Sorry, kids. I think I just had a John Connor moment.

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Great Video of Octopus Walking on Land

November 22nd, 2011 1 comment

 


In case you’ve never seen an octopus walking on land, this video will remedy that fact.

The octopus show above at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, California, is trying — as one of the commenters cleverly puts it — to get to “Octopi Wall Street.” Doh!!

Along the way, it inexplicably drops off a crab, whether by accident or as a gift to its new human friends, I’m not quite sure.

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Get Stoked for Wednesday’s Emergency Alert System Test!

November 8th, 2011 No comments

Ars Technica has a piece about this Wednesday’s planned nationwide panic. The fear is that the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System will have people thinking it’s a real emergency — and since it’ll happen just a day after the close approach by asteroid 2005 YU55, a bit of a panic wouldn’t surprise me.

In a piece titled Feds try to prevent War of the Worlds-style panic over national emergency alert, it gets me scratching my head over how this stuff is actually supposed to work in a world where certain people, say, me, get all our information via internet, not through any kind of broadcast or cable.

This Wednesday, November 9, at 2 pm eastern standard time, every TV broadcaster, cable channel, radio station, and satellite radio program from Puerto Rico to Missouri to American Samoa will be interrupted for 30 seconds by the federal government. Don’t panic—there’s no nuclear strike. But if there were a nuclear strike, this is how the feds would spread the word.

It’s the first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which hopes to provide key information immediately to all Americans in the event of a truly national emergency. This national system will look and sound much like the current (and local) emergency warnings often seen on TV or heard on radio, but the scope is larger and it can be put under the direct control of the President. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Weather Service (NWS) will all coordinate the test, but it’s FEMA that actually transmits the alert code.

…But not to worry! Though such warning messages might look terrifyingly real, they will eventually feature an audio message explaining that this is just a test. The government is still concerned that hearing-impaired users, in particular, might mistake the test for a real alert. The FCC has produced a series of brief ads to notify people about the test, and cable operators have taken to warning people about it on their monthly cable bills (which everyone reads, right?).

[Link.]

I guess the idea is that if it were a real emergency, somebody somewhere would be watching TV and would post about it on Facebook, huh? Hope it’s someone I know…

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Ogopogo: Canadian Loch Ness Monster Caught on Video?

November 7th, 2011 No comments

Photo from Ogopogomonster.com

 

Ogopogo or Naitaka (from the Salish language for “lake demon”) is a lake monster reported in British Colombia’s Okanagan lake since the time of the First Nations. Reported most commonly as something like a sea serpent, it doesn’t have the characteristic “plesiosaur” style body reported in Nessie sightings. Ogopogo has been investigated by the likes of Karl Shuker, who wrote The Beasts That Hide from Man, who suggested that most Ogopogo sightings may be misidentification of creatures like otters and inanimate items like logs. The best film of Ogopogo was shot in 1968 by a guy named Art Folden, becoming the infamous “Folden Film.”

The Vancouver Sun (via MSNBC) reports that visitor Richard Huls says he’s captured video of Ogopogo, which you can view right here. I warn you, though…it’s pretty disappointing. It’s not even really a wake of any kind…it looks to me like a current or something. How it made the news, I haven’t the foggiest idea.

Other Ogopogo videos on YouTube, like this one, are more of the same — something under the water, maybe, but who knows what? Nothing to see here.

From MSNBC’s story:

A man visiting British Columbia’s Lake Okanagan last week claims to have captured video of Ogopogo, Canada’s version of the Loch Ness Monster.

According to a report in the Vancouver Sun, “An Okanagan man has video he says proves the Ogopogo may be more than just a figment of our imagination. Richard Huls says he always believed in the possibility of the monster rumored to be living in Okanagan Lake. Last Thursday, while visiting a West Kelowna winery, Huls shot video that he believes proves something does indeed live in the water. ‘It was not going with the waves,’ Huls said. ‘It was not a wave obviously, just a darker color. The size and the fact that they were not parallel with the waves made me think it had to be something else.”

Ogopogo, some believe, has its roots in native Canadian Indian legends that told of a beast called N’ha-a-itk that would demand a live sacrifice from travelers for safe passage across Lake Okanagan. Hundreds of years ago, whenever Indians would venture into the lake, they brought chickens or other small animals to kill and drop into the water to assure a protected journey. It’s clear, however, that these stories were not referring to a literal lake monster but instead to a legendary water spirit, and are not historical evidence for Ogopogo.

…So what exactly did Huls record? The video quality is poor, and the camera is shaky, so it’s hard to tell what the object is, or even if it’s moving. But a closer look at the 30-second video reveals that, instead of one long object, there are actually two shorter ones, and they seem to be floating next to each other at slightly different angles. There are no humps, nor head, nor form; only two long, darkish, more or less straight forms that appear to be a few dozen feet long. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lake Okanagan has tens of thousands of logs harvested by the timber industry floating just under the lake’s surface.

[Link.]

I gotta hand it to MSNBC, they’ve got cojones. Calling Ogopogo “Canada’s Loch Ness Monster” is a dangerous enterprise. You might piss off the Lake Ontario super-snake.

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The White House Officially Responds to Two Alien Conspiracy Petitions

November 6th, 2011 No comments


We’ve already established that Herman Cain’s chief of staff Mark Block is the new Cigarette Smoking Man. But the cover-up goes all the way to the top. Yesterday, the White House said it has no evidence of alien visitations. Can you believe it!?!

In a WhiteHouse.gov post entitled Searching for ET, But No Evidence Yet, Phil Larson of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy provides the official White House response to two citizen petitions concerning the government’s knowledge of alien visitations. The first, signed by 5,387 citizens, insists that the U.S. government “Immediately disclose the government’s knowledge of and communication with extraterrestrial beings“:

This Petition calls for the President to disclose to the American people the long withheld knowledge of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings and call for open Congressional hearings to allow the people to become aware of this subject through those whose voices have been silenced by unconstitutional secrecy oaths.

[Link.]

The second petition, signed by 12,078 people, asks that the government “Formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race-Disclosure” (yes, it’s got a “disclosure” just tacked on there at the end):

We, the undersigned, strongly urge the President of the United States to formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race and immediately release into the public domain all files from all agencies and military services relevant to this phenomenon.

Hundreds of military and government agency witnesses have come forward with testimony confirming this extraterrestrial presence. Opinion polls now indicate more than 50% of the American people believe there is an extraterrestrial presence and more than 80% believe the government is not telling the truth about this phenomenon. The people have a right to know. The people can handle the truth.

[Link.]

Together, they got a response this past week:

Searching for ET, But No Evidence Yet
By Phil Larson

Thank you for signing the petition asking the Obama Administration to acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence here on Earth.

The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.

However, that doesn’t mean the subject of life outside our planet isn’t being discussed or explored. In fact, there are a number of projects working toward the goal of understanding if life can or does exist off Earth. Here are a few examples:
SETI—the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence—was originally stood up with help from NASA, but has since been moved to other sources of private funding. SETI’s main purpose is to act as a giant ear on behalf of the human race, pointing an array of ground-based telescopes towards space to listen for any signal from another world.
Kepler is a NASA spacecraft in Earth orbit that’s main goal is to search for Earth-like planets. Such a planet would be located in the “Goldilocks” zone of a distant solar system—not too hot and not too cold—and could potentially be habitable by life as we know it. The Kepler mission is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover Earth-sized, rocky planets in or near the habitable zone of the star (sun) they orbit.

The Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, is an automobile-sized rover that NASA is launching soon. The rover’s onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and other geology in an effort to detect the chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the Martian environment was like in the past to see if it could have harbored life.

A last point: Many scientists and mathematicians have looked with a statistical mindset at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life.

Many have also noted, however, that the odds of us making contact with any of them—especially any intelligent ones—are extremely small, given the distances involved.

But that’s all statistics and speculation. The fact is we have no credible evidence of extraterrestrial presence here on Earth.

[Link.]

If that doesn’t satisfy you, you’re almost guaranteed not to be alone.

After all, if this cover-up’s been going on ever since the 1952 Washington Flap — or since Mulder’s Dad screwed over some sailor from an alien-infested submarine — then you can rest assured that a couple of online petitions aren’t going to convince the Illuminati to unlock the vaults of knowledge and open the doors of perception. But they might make aliens Facebook famous!

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Bigfoot Spotted in Golden Gate Park

November 6th, 2011 1 comment


There’s an SFGate post today about a woman who dresses up as Bigfoot in Golden Gate Park:

Dressed in a Sasquatch suit, Leslie Hensley lurks about on the branches of a sprawling tree in the middle of Golden Gate Park. Suddenly without warning, she darts behind a group of joggers on the Stow Lake trail. One runner bursts in laughter just before the life-size, furry creature vanishes behind another tree. “I like playing with people – not in a sadistic way, but genuinely I have a desire to engage with people in a very playful manner,” said Hensley, who runs a participatory art project in the Inner Richmond called Frankenart Mart. She designed the space as a place for people to make art without rules or judgment. Every three months, she creates a new theme and invites the community to participate. “I kind of think of this whole thing as a collaboration,” she said. The current theme, “Outside In,” inspired her to make the Bigfoot suit. It was initially intended for visitors to try on for themselves, but it mostly hung lifeless in the front of the Frankenart Mart storefront. So she decided to push the concept. “I think Bigfoot is kind of a wish for magic in a lot of ways. A wish for the unknown,” she said. “We’ve conquered this world so much that there is not a lot left that’s magical.”

[Link.]

There’s also a slideshow here.

You may recall that earlier this year, a guy named Jonathan Doyle engaged in similar Bigfoot-suit hijinx in a New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock State Park, filming himself surprising hikers. He got shut down when park officials demanded he pay for a $100 permit and get $2 million of insurance before he could videotape his second sequence. Last I heard, he was suing the State of New Hampshire with the assistance of the ACLU.

Foreclosure Factory Halloween Pics Feature Costumes Mocking the Homeless

October 30th, 2011 2 comments

As you’re trying to decide whether to wear that pimp costume this Halloween, be an “Indian brave,” a Bangkok prostitute or just push it balls-to-the-wall and be a pregnant streetwalking trailer park slut, let’s solemnly consider the cautionary tale offered by allegedly criminal Buffalo law firm of Steven J. Baum, which “serves the default industry.”

That is to say, Baum specializes in foreclosures.

Last fall, as the financial crises deepened and more and more families were ejected from their homes by the likes of Baum, the firm threw a Halloween bash in which employees dressed up as homeless people, complete with shopping carts and signs advertising their “excuses” as to why they shouldn’t be foreclosed on.

Hilarious, huh? I know, I laughed so hard I think I urinated all over myself, or maybe that was just the guy who lives in the alley near my apartment building, trying to take a whiz in public without getting targeted by police snipers! Well, never you worry, I (allegedly) suspect that the Baum firm had its share of white-trash debutantes, honkeys in blackface and geisha girls as well as their LOLZY renditions of pathetic families with small children forced to camp on the sidewalk because of Baum’s allegedly predatory foreclosure practices.

I just hope between slugging back non-biodegradable plastic cups of single-malt Scotch and munching on $40 plates of orange-and-black cookies, puff-pastry hors d’oeuvres and (allegedly) fridge-scented canapes, the firm’s employees had a chance to congratulate each other for not being homeless! I mean, they say that most families in America are just one paycheck away from homelesness, but you know what I think? I think any family that lets itself get foreclosed on by an (allegedly) fast-talking law firm that (allegedly) doesn’t give a shit about morals or ethics is sort of like a protester in Bahrain: fucked, sure, but thank God it’s not us!! I love my job, don’t you?!?!?

Well, since the we-own-houses, we-have-jobs, we’re-oh-so-special club is even smaller this year than last, nobody seems to have a sense of humor anymore.

It seems like America might be, you know, newly sensitive to the plight of the homeless, some of whom got that way through the tireless social activism of the Steven J. Baum Law Firm.

That’s why Baum sure is lucky that nobody took any incriminating pictures last year, aren’t they? I mean…those pics could really wipe a turd on those crab cakes they’re (allegedly) planning to serve at this year’s party, couldn’t they — if, say, they were distributed by a former employee and published in the New York Times, right? Am I right?

You’re right! Or rather, Joe Nocera is right:

Let me describe a few of the photos. In one, two Baum employees are dressed like homeless people. One is holding a bottle of liquor. The other has a sign around her neck that reads: “3rd party squatter. I lost my home and I was never served.” My source said that “I was never served” is meant to mock “the typical excuse” of the homeowner trying to evade a foreclosure proceeding.

A second picture shows a coffin with a picture of a woman whose eyes have been cut out. A sign on the coffin reads: “Rest in Peace. Crazy Susie.” The reference is to Susan Chana Lask, a lawyer who had filed a class-action suit against Steven J. Baum — and had posted a YouTube video denouncing the firm’s foreclosure practices. “She was a thorn in their side,” said my source.

A third photograph shows a corner of Baum’s office decorated to look like a row of foreclosed homes. Another shows a sign that reads, “Baum Estates” — needless to say, it’s also full of foreclosed houses. Most of the other pictures show either mock homeless camps or mock foreclosure signs — or both. My source told me that not every Baum department used the party to make fun of the troubled homeowners they made their living suing. But some clearly did. The adjective she’d used when she sent them to me — “appalling” — struck me as exactly right.

These pictures are hardly the first piece of evidence that the Baum firm treats homeowners shabbily — or that it uses dubious legal practices to do so. It is under investigation by the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. It recently agreed to pay $2 million to resolve an investigation by the Department of Justice into whether the firm had “filed misleading pleadings, affidavits, and mortgage assignments in the state and federal courts in New York.” (In the press release announcing the settlement, Baum acknowledged only that “it occasionally made inadvertent errors.”)
[Link.]

My fellow Americans, take a moment to shed a tear for the poor, poor hardworking souls of the Steven J. Baum firm in Buffalo, New York. They’ve had a rough year, those (allegedly) hardworking Americans who, between trips to the water cooler and lengthy tangles with McDonald’s-fueled bowel obstructions in the toilet stalls while reading Better Homes and Gardens, ruin other peoples’ lives and then laugh their asses off about it.

These are the hardworking Americans that the likes of Occupy Wall Street (allegedly) want to put out of work.

And the Big Man himself knows his babies did a bad bad thing, according to The Buffalo News:

The head of the firm, Steven J. Baum, said in a statement to The Buffalo News on Saturday that the photos “obviously were in poor taste.”

“On behalf of the firm, I sincerely apologize for what happened last year at our Halloween party,” he said.

Baum said the firm had its Halloween party last week at its various locations, “and we reiterated our company policy as it pertains to wearing appropriate costumes. No one is permitted to wear a costume that could be interpreted as being offensive.”

Baum said this year’s party raised money for the American Red Cross, and he mentioned other fundraising efforts his firm is involved in.

The ex-employee told Nocera that not all Baum departments used the 2010 party to mock homeowners facing foreclosure.

[Link.]

So have some pity on Mr. Baum’s employees…because times are tough! Money is tight! And everywhere, people are cutting back on expenses! That might even include a few law firm employees, right?

So is it too much to hope that some of Baum’s employees might have saved their costumes from last year, and recycled them for this year’s second-verse-same-as-the-first? I mean, they can’t all have been flush enough to afford whole new costumes as suicide bombers and gangsta rappers, right? Is it too much to hope that there was a hobo or two, and maybe a one-legged Iraq vet with flesh-eating bacteria, and a crying tear-gassed Oakland protester, and maybe a bankruptcy victim dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (hilarious!) at Baum’s party this year?

And that even now, those photos might be winging their way to the likes of Mr. Nocera at the New York Times?

If so, I’d just hate to see those hardworking foreclosure commandos, you know, lose their jobs over it or anything.

Then they might have to recycle those costumes for use in the real world.

And my guess is…it wouldn’t seem very funny.

Protesters Alert: I’m Getting Arrested Ap for Android

October 27th, 2011 1 comment

In the wake of the sickening violence in Oakland, protesters may worry they run the risk of a hell of a lot worse than just being arrested. But if you’re someplace like, say, my town, Sacramento, where the D.A. refused to prosecute Occupy Sacramento protesters so the City Attorney, in an unprecedented action, decided to prosecute anyway, well, then…you might actually get taken to the slammer rather than, oh, say, shot in the f*$@$@*ing head. Woe is you, but remember, freedom’s only free if you’re a stockbroker.

That’s when you’ll need I’m Getting Arrested.

Here’s how it works: Before you go to a protest, you program your Android smartphone with the cell phone numbers of your contacts — or, presumably, a Tweet-enabled email address or your Tumbelog. Just before the cuffs go on, you hit the panic button on your I’m Getting Arrested ap:

Alert your lawyer, loved ones, etc … that you are being arrested with a click.

I’m Getting Arrested enables anyone, with one click, to broadcast a custom message to SMS numbers in the event they are arrested.

Very easy to setup and operate. Instructions under help menu.

Inspired by a real Occupy Wall Street incident. Free to the other 99%.

[Link.]

Yes, it’s released with the Occupy Wall Street in mind, but it can go a lot further than that. It currently supports Arabic, Basque, Catalan, English, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Turkish, and the developers say they’re seeking volunteers to translate it into other languages.

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