Weekly Head Voices #78: Aeroimpressed.

Up in the North, temperatures were in the mid to high twenties every day (yes, it’s the middle of Winter, and that’s how they roll in the North). Back home we had to deal with mid to high tens (sometimes in the twenties!), and then, because the houses are not built for winter and sport similar temperatures inside and outside, you resort to making a fire in yer office, because that’s how we roll!

My office is on fire! Note the interrogation lamp.

(don’t worry, our friendly electrician managed to get the underfloor heating working and now I don’t have to make fire in the office anymore. you can send donations towards my electricity bill via paypal.)

On Tuesday evening (after the fire), I decided to go to my first MeetUp. Although my main goal was to meet fellow software developers and entrepreneurs from my neighbourhood, I had a super enjoyable evening meeting said people, and learning about Construct 2 (the topic of the presentation). Now while I’m not into gaming at all, this did lead to evenings of reading about the various mobile game development libraries; there’s a whole universe of interesting cross-platform code out there! My search finally ended with Moai SDK, an open source C++ engine with Lua bindings (Lua is awesome, before Moai I integrated it with my secret hobby project; for 200kBytes you get a whole super fast dynamic language in your C++ application!) that can be used to write 2D games for all of the desktop platforms, as well as for iOS and for Android.

I have too many hobby projects going, but the idea of writing a mobile app that’s actually enjoyed by a few people does sound like fun. (I do have an embarrassing app in the store. It’s been downloaded more than 10000 times, and many of the reviewers (more than 200 at last count) have turned superlative reviewing for the useless app into an art. (Writing over the top funny reviews is a thing, but you knew that.))

It was awesome seeing Colbert interviewing Vint Cerf, co-father of the internet:

(ARGH. Last Tuesday, this was a working YouTube video – tonight it claims to have been removed by the user. Also, none of the videos available from The Colbert Report’s website are viewable here in SA. I briefly considered hosting the video here for both of my readers, but instead I’ll just post this other more useful link here.)

The bit at 17m50 in the full episode, or at 20 seconds into the part 2 video hosted on the Colbert site, where Colbert asks Cerf about his resemblance to The Architect (of The Matrix) is priceless.

Vint Cerf on the left, The Architect on the right. (I had to watch this via US VPN due to geographic rights restrictions. Kind of ironic!)

Oh, it turns out that Al Gore did help to get NSFnet funded by the NSF, and so the running joke about him giving the world internet has a kernel of truth according to the gracious Vint Cerf. Here’s a cookie to feed to your trivia OCD: Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn started working on what would become the internet in 1973, and they switched it on in 1983.

GOU#1, all of 8 years old, is independently WhatsApping with her grandparents, from her own telephone. I find it really awesome that she’s making these connections with her extended family. I also find it awesome that she comes up with these kinds of constructions when we’re not in the mood to build a real fire:

Augmented reality, GOU#1 style.

(Now she just has to let me teach her to code.)

(I thought that this was going to be a really short post, but this time my notes had other ideas. We’re almost done…)

On Sunday, we went to Lourensford, a well-known wine farm and cellar just down the road from me, and also the location of the Coffee Company roastery, to acquire a supply of freshly roasted coffee beans to feed the a voracious bean-to-cup machine which lives in my kitchen.

Sitting on the shelf above all of the lovely coffee beans was a newly delivered consignment of Aeropress coffee makers. During a previous visit, I had managed to resist taking one, but this thing was now singing to the very warp core of my inner coffee nerd.

I could not resist its call anymore.

Giant coffee injection. Air-tight seal, column of air pushes water through coffee in 30 seconds. I haz it.

I can now report that with freshly ground Bugisu Arabica coffee, the liquid black gold emerging from this wondrous device is indeed some of the purest and best coffee that I’ve ever had. If you’re into coffee, get one of these. You can thank me at the next hipster meetup.

Weekly Head Voices #77: A South African state of Mindful.

I deliberately skipped a week, because it was one of those extremely taxing pre-vacation weeks during which I had several near-foetal-position-thumb-in-mouth-moments. Instead I’ll be writing about my vacation, with pictures, and a little bit of backyard philosophy.

This post is being written in a speeding Toyota Quantum 10-seater minibus (yes, it looks exactly like a taxi, we are currently the king of the road). Don’t worry, my co-driver has taken over. I’m not yet ready to attempt blogging whilst driving. (I do aspire.)

In any case, the week started with us flying from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and then making our way in this same speeding minibus to the Skukuza gate of the Kruger National Park, henceforth KNP. (This park is about 19500 square kilometres, almost half the size of The Netherlands!)

Due to a wrong turn-off (we blame the GPS), we spent an hour or two navigating pothole-riddled roads in pitch dark conditions in perhaps not the safest regions of my beloved country. It was one of those stressful but life-affirming experiences for which one is thankful but would prefer never having to repeat.

We spent the rest of the week more or less in the wild, mostly at a game lodge directly adjacent to the KNP. It’s quite amazing what being surrounded by the bush and all kinds of wild animals does to one’s state of mind. One by one, all of the incoming streams of information and internal lines of busy-thought are put firmly in their place, in some cases switched off with resounding clicks, eventually turning really-really-busy-you into mindful you.

Mindful you has time to think, and to focus. Related to this phenomenon, and partly due to it, there are two thoughts I would like to mention.

However, first those promised pictures! I tried to make a representative selection from the few hundred photos that I took.

I guess there’s a reason they call it the Crocodile River:

After days of searching for them, we finally ran into five young male lions during an early morning drive. Much excitement between the rangers and in our car, with the lions just outside of touching distance. The ranger told us that they see the car as a non-threatening animal, and that somehow us pink and soft humans sitting inside are not interesting, in spite of the large (about lion-sized) open windows:

Finally, I was very lucky to catch this dramatic hippopotamus face-off. You knew they were huge, but did you know they could move this fast? Watch them chase each other and then face off, concurrently marking territory by, uhm, spraying faeces around with their little wagging tails. Fascinating!

Still with me?! Here are those two backyard philosophy(ish) thoughts I promised:

You are turning into a cyborg.

We are all slowly turning into cyborgs.

We have our always-connected smartphones, our tablets, our laptops, and soon we will have heads-up displays always in front of our eyes (I called it in 2009, I think Google read my blog post). Probably due to our foraging nature and the accompanying neuro-chemistry, we find it incredibly hard to resist the call of email, of facebook, of twitter. What if something new and interesting appears? There’s a lovely dopamine shot waiting right there.

On top of this empire of connected technology, we build intricate systems to keep track of our time, our responsibilities and all of the odd bits of information that we come across. Heaven forbid that we forget anything! We open up as many pathways to capture as much as possible of our environment.

What happens when we are able to switch all of this off temporarily? Well, initially nothing much. Internally, business continues as usual. There’s no more incoming information, but our brains keep on going.

However, after a while things start calming down. All of the little thoughts fall away, leaving the big and important ones. Life starts coalescing, becoming more integrated again. Because all of the little stones are temporarily out of the way, it seems that one is able to move the really big rocks. It’s a strange and exhilarating experience.

So, busy-you makes way for mindful-you. Loads of small thoughts and some big ones make way for a few big ones.

With this, I’m not saying that we should fight the cyborgs that we are becoming. I think we should embrace our future. We need to be more knowledgeable and more connected to our fellow humans. We need to integrate with our technology. I do wonder how we can unite all this with being more mindful.

Is it possible to learn how to switch digital you on and off on demand?

South Africa, you are the most interesting place in the world.

(to me)

Before I left for Europe 14 years ago, I used to want South Africa to play more to its European influences, to be more European.

In the years since then, I’ve had the pleasure to live in one of the prettiest little cities in The Netherlands, and to spend vacation time in Italy, in the south of Spain, in the south of France, in Greece and in Sardinia (technically Italy, but I mention it separately because it was that awesome). I’ve also had the pleasure to spend work time in Germany, Norway and Sweden. Altogether, this is a not too shabby sampling of Western Europe.

What I’ve seen is beautiful, and it has been a superb growing experience making the connections between my European heritage and its various sources.

Exploring these connections has also helped me to better understand the African influences that have partially formed me, and are the foundations of South Africa. Added to this, I’ve had the distinct privilege of being a tourist in my own country together with Dutch friends. This was perhaps the most acute eye opener. I’ve come to appreciate that Africanness of which I once thought that it should be moved slightly more to the background.

So here I am now. SA is a fantastically interesting place. It’s a beautiful country, but, more relevantly, it’s currently in a huge state of flux. I’m happy to be able to play a small role in trying to redefine the strange little subculture that I belong to. I’m doing my best to connect more with fellow South Africans.

I am optimistic that the country will be able to define its own voice; that it will integrate everyone, even its seemingly out of place European children, in a uniquely South African cocktail.

Weekly Head Voices #76: Someone is wrong on the internet.

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I must be getting older.

During the past week, there were at least three or four occasions where someone was clearly wrong on the internet, and I dutifully started carefully crafting that brilliant corrective response which would inevitably spiral downward into the fiery depths of idiocy.

However, each time I stopped mid-answer, long before clicking the post button or sending the email, and switched to some other more valuable and less pointless activity. It was a strange feeling, but the eerie sense of having saved a bunch of time made up for it generously.

(I have to admit that there was one occasion, call it the fifth, where I couldn’t help myself and briefly took part in a Facebook discussion around a photo of a young man with some rather extreme facial piercings. I felt that I really needed to correct the other participants: I might not have any of my own body modifications, but I feel strongly about encouraging self-expression, and I think that the variety that it brings is important. There are other things that unify us, like love, respect and intellect. Yes, I’m a Vulcan Hippie. LLAP you fools!)

On the topic of age and the inevitable mid-life crisis, it seems technology has brought us the cure. GIANT WATER-JET-POWERED HOVERBOARDS!!

After a week of not-correcting-the-internet (good), lots of Python (good) and much face-palming at the South African Reserve Bank’s archaic view on intellectual property and exchange control (hopefully much more on that later), my weekend was of the fabulous middle-of-the-Cape-winter variety.

It started with some of this on Friday:

Skeleton Coast IPA, brewed by Jack Black in Cape Town. Highly recommended! Fire and wine not too bad either.

On Saturday, a completely unplanned and somewhat impulsive turnoff from the R44 right before Stellenbosch brought us to the vineyard Dornier. Some of it looks like this:

In the Cape, the summer is always trying to break through, even in the middle of winter.

Having arrived there, it doesn’t take much convincing to end up dining in restaurant Bodega, where the wine is very local (hey, it says Dornier on the bottles!) and is artfully paired with the delicious food. My lunch ended with these delectable cheeses, preserves and the Dornier Donatus White. I can’t remember the year, but it was a fabulous Chenin Blanc and Semillon blend which the DWR will hopefully soon be able to judge. I fortunately just managed to snap this picture in the midst of a gorgonzola-induced mini pleasure seizure:

Gorgonzola is my kryptonite.

(We spent the rest of the seemingly endless weekend scorching various types of meat, drinking craft beer and baking in the winter sun in Paarl. You can say many things about Paarl, but you can’t deny that it has a most excellent climate.)

Apparently, a few of this blog’s readers have been wondering what I really look like. (Well, actually no-one has. Ever. But they could have!) Clamour no more, small group of fictitious readers! This week, my youngest genetic offspring unit, or GOU#1 as we lovingly call her, brought me a drawing that she made. Internet, I give you me, through my daughter’s eyes:

Weekly Head Voices #75: Nature White Noise.

This post is going to be really short, so I’m giving you this 80s theme song to compensate:

DON’T YOU FEEL LIKE DOING AWESOME 80s STUFF AFTER THAT?!

In week 25, I finally got around to writing that level sets blog post I’ve been warning everyone about. If you’re into that type of thing, the level set method is an interesting alternative way to represent N-dimensional surfaces evolving through space. Read all about it in Level sets: The practical 10 minute introduction.

Tina Wen, an engineer at Dropbox, wrote up her how I work blog post at lifehacker. I’m a sucker for those types of posts, but what stuck with me this time, was her description of how she keeps out ambient noise at work:

I use earplugs, with headphones over them playing white noise, to tune out the commotion of the office. … Always the same album—Sounds of Nature White Noise for Mindfulness Meditation and Relaxation. It’s just the sound of a mountain stream, and it helps me tune out distractions when I’m trying to get stuff done.

Crazy engineer! Listening to the same album over and over…

Well, the album she mentions can be found on YouTube, and now I’ve been listening to it over and over. I have to report that it works surprisingly well at helping to zone out ambient noise and zone into programming work.

This stuff is relatively mild. It turns out there’s a whole industry built on the pseudo-science of brainwave entrapment, using terms like binaural beats and isochronic tones, all claiming to be able to reprogram your brainwaves!

Whatever the case may be, it’s fun going through some of the tracks, with titles like the intriguing “Increase Concentration With Study Focus Pulsating Synth (Isochronic Tones)”, and the especially dangerous-sounding “WARNING! Extremely Powerful Brainwave Binaural – Mind Control Power – Alpha”. You might want to avoid the comments (just in case some of that stuff is contagious), instead reading this blog post debunking the current state of affairs.

Pipe up in the comments if you’ve played with white noise and other types of audio to zone out your environment and into your work!

After a more than sufficient amount of white noise and extreme programming during the week, we spent the shortest and most wintery day of the year (winter solstice, yeah!) in the Helderberg Nature Reserve, more or less in my backyard. It looked like this:

Brrrrr!

Weekly Head Voices #74: Truth.

I think I might have forgotten to tell you that one of the many perks of working at the Stone Three offices is that there’s a micro-brewery within walking distance. Triggerfish Brewing, as brewery in question is called, was the location of a midweek mini-get-together that ended up looking like this:

Triggerfish’s Roman Red Ale on a Winter’s day.

On the topic of not-too-shabby settings for meetings, I finally got around to visiting Truth Coffee in Cape Town, described by some as The best coffee shop in the world. I was too busy having a good meeting, enjoying the superb coffee, and generally gawking at the fantastic interior and the pretty people (guests and staff) to take any photos, so you’re going to have to take me on my word and check some of the photos floating around on the web.

In between coffee, beer and meetings, I wrote two short nerdy posts at the vxlabs:

It was pretty awesome to hear that NASA is thinking pretty seriously about developing a warp drive, with which a ship would we able to traverse space at effectively faster than light speeds. It would do this without locally exceeding the speed of light by warping space around the travelling ship, contracting spacetime before the moving ship and expanding it behind it. The ideas are based on a paper by Miguel Alcubierre from 1994 titled The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity, and so this gets to be called the Alcubierre Drive!

Well now they’ve gone and published artist’s impressions of what such an Alcubierre Drive-equipped ship could look like, and it’s gorgeous!

My favourite view of the ship. The rings on the outside are there to create the warp bubble which will BEND SPACETIME!

These are pretty exciting times.

I’m going to end this post with an acronym I embarrasingly only learnt the meaning of yesterday: LLAP!