Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Happy distractions: sumo, South African music, and Islamic hackerfic

This year is the first in decades where I’ve been beneficiary and victim of the academic schedule. While I spent almost a decade at the Berkman Center, research at that institution continues year-round, and there’s not much of a summer lull. The Media Lab is closer to the traditional academic cycle, as many students head out of the lab for internships and many of the professors hole up to complete research and writing.

I’m trying to follow their lead and am revising the book I’ve been working on for the past two years, towards a spring publication date. And that, in turn, has given me a good chance to think about distraction.

Like many people, I’m highly distractible. I do my best work in public places – coffee shops, libraries, airplanes – because they eliminate some of my favorite ways of wasting time: cutting weeds in my back yard, investigating the contents of my refrigerator, roaming the lab to see if there’s anyone interesting around to talk to. But when you’re writing a book on the Internet, it’s very hard to eliminate online distractions without cutting yourself off from your research subject. (And, if you’re sufficiently skilled at distractibility, you’ll find ways to convince yourself that the website you’re frenetically clicking through is somehow related to your core research topics.)

So, here’s what’s most distracting me today:

We’re nearing the end of the Nagoya basho, sumo’s summer tournament. Two of my favorites, Yokozuna Hakuho and Ozeki Harumafuji are both undefeated at 11-0, and everyone who follows the sport is hoping to a showdown of the two on the final day.


Highlights from day 10 of the Nagoya Basho.

Sumo’s getting much easier to watch thanks to the efforts of “Kintamayama“, whose YouTube profile identifies himself as a 58 year old dude from Tel Aviv. He posts daily summaries of the basho, evidently edited from the match livestreams. I’m not able to watch the livestream, which airs in the early morning my time, so I generally rely on torrents of NHK’s English language coverage. Those take hours to find and download, and they’re three hours long, featuring all the pre-bout ritual theatrics that accompany sumo. Kintamayama cuts to the chase – his ten minute videos feature the key high-level bouts and occasional highlights from the lower ranks, with English language information on who won and with what throw. As a bonus, his snarky subtitles during judges deliberations are always worth a watch.

While my favorite Mongolians are dominating this basho, much as they’re kicking ass in the global economy, it’s wonderful to see a veritable United Nations competing at the high ranks of sumo. The Japanese are back in force at the Ozeki rank, with Kisenosato and Kotoshugiko. Baruto weighs in from Estonia (he’s 200kg, so that’s a pun, people) and Kotooshu from Bulgaria ensure that eastern Europe is well represented at the top ranks of the sport. I’ve been having a lot of fun this basho watching Kaisei, a powerful Brazilian rikishi who’s been having a great tournament.

If you’re interested in following the next four days of the bout, try:
Kintamayama’s YouTube channel
Asahi Shimbun’s excellent English-language sumo coverage
Sumo Forum


Sumo’s great for wasting at least half an hour a day, watching the matches and reading up on the most impressive competitors, but to truly lose hours of productive time, there’s no pastime like tracking down obscure records from the 1970s and 80s. Eric Kleptone, the legendary remixer and prankster behind projects like “Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots”, has recently turned his attentions towards one of the great musicological mysteries of our time: the identity of the album that inspired Paul Simon to travel to South Africa and record his “Graceland” album. (I’ve written at length about Paul Simon, “Graceland” and the controversies over the album.)

Simon legendarily received a cassette tape from a friend, titled “Accordion Jive Hits, Volume 2″ that inspired him to discover South African mbaqanga music. But, as numerous frustrated African music fans have discovered, no album by that title exists. Kleptone discusses the possible provenance of the album in the notes for his mix, Paths to Graceland, which is an attempt to catalog possible influences that might have led Simon to South Africa. It’s a gorgeous, lively and beautiful mix, filled with music that’s new to my ears, but so clearly kin to the music Simon featured that it seems like I must have heard it decades ago.

The rabbit hole Kleptone opens is through providing a thorough track listing, which leads me to discover that Tau Ea Lesotho is responsible for the accordion and high-octave bass guitar that causes me to engage in spontaneous, uncontrollable chair dancing. And that, in turn, leads me onto blogs like Afro Slabs, which work to track down and digitize these amazing albums. It’s probably possible to track down all the albums Kleptone references and build your own collection of early 80s South African and Lesotho music – I appear to be doing so without really trying to.


Of course, if you truly want to ensure no progress is made on a massive project like a book revision, you’ll need to get lost in a book. I’m currently ensnared by G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen“. My wife is a huge Wilson fan, and has reviewed her graphic novel Cairo, and her memoir about conversion to Islam, The Butterfly Mosque, but Alif is the first book of hers she’s pressed on me. I understand why – Salon describes the book as “hacker meets djinn“, and the novel is an amazing tale of an alpha geek who works to protect online speech in the Arab world and a world of sinister, dark magical realism.

It’s a badass scifi yarn, with lots of provocative ideas about Islam, freedom, submission, will, gender, culture and independence. And as someone who works with dissidents around the world, including the Persian Gulf, it raises challenging and uncomfortable questions about the power and limits of speech to create change. I’m enjoying the adventure of the story, but suspect I’ll be savoring the larger questions for weeks to come.


My hope is that, like singing an earworm aloud to banish it, honoring these worthy distractions will give me a few hours of focus. Or, perhaps they’ll simply pull you down to my level of happy unproductivity.

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