Weekly Head Voices #81: Middle-aged zen.

(Warning: This post has an extremely high backyard philosophy content. Will probably greatly offend any real philosophers, and a bunch of other people I probably have not even thought about.)

I recently became middle-aged. As part of the thank you I wrote for the many kind words people posted to my facebook wall, I made a short summary of the things I had learned over the past N years. I hope you don’t mind that I post them here as well:

… here’s what I’ve picked up over the past decades (only two things, I’m a slow learner):

  1. Relationships – the most important thing (and maybe even the only thing) in the world.
  2. Kindness – it really looks like we have unlimited quantities of this to give, but somehow there’s not as much of it going around as there could be. Let’s fix this!

Since that note (I’ve skipped a number of weekly posts here as you might have noticed; really really busy) I have also been thinking about the relationship between one’s happiness, one’s circumstances, and the plasticity of one’s self.

I’ll start this little story with me during a coffee-induced zen moment:

Zen is a real thing that you can read about on wikipedia, in a billion blogs and also in BookBooks. I don’t think that I’m deviating too far from the real deal when I use zen to describe any form of personal enlightenment, or that elevated state of self I should be striving for every moment of every day, but mostly forget to do because I get caught up in life as, ironically, I am not yet zen enough.

Sometimes, I find myself in a perfect little moment of warmth and humanity with close friends or family (and/or with a perfect coffee) and I am somehow able to observe and appreciate the moment in real-time from a spot somewhere outside of the conversation, for example while I’m walking to school with my daughter on a spring morning and realise that life in these simple moments is even greater than I thought. Sometimes I am briefly able to distance myself from some perceived life complexity, a distance from which everything actually looks pretty fine and then turns out to be exactly that. Was it that way to start with, did it change, or did I change?

I think being able to take a few (or a thousand) steps back in order to better see yourself and your situation is related to one of the few fundamental zen principles: Enlightenment through growing self-knowledge. I also somehow had in my mind that there was some connection between zen and the principle of mind like water, or mizo no kokoro if you prefer its prettier ring. In searching for this link, I stumbled onto this Bruce Lee quote:

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.

During those occasional and coincidental flashes of increased perception I mentioned above the quote, when I was both in the experience and outside, at a good distance, I was able to look inwards and see how I could best change me to suit the situation better. The better I suit the situation, the more it agrees with me. Harmony.

Let me restate that: Most often I am not able to change my environment. However, I am apparently able to train my ability to change me, which in many cases can lead to the same desired harmonious outcome.

So, sort of in addition to the things I’ve learned over the past years, here are the things I strive to have cultivated when I grow up:

  • Mindfulness, of me, the human beings I am fortunate to be surrounded with and all of the interactions between us. This includes the ability to take a thousand steps back, and to see clearly.
  • A mind like water, not to do kung fu fighting, but to be able to change and flow continuously to contribute more to harmony and happiness.

Because I’m not sure how else to do this, I’m ending this story with a photo of a beer that I took during a really sunny zen moment:

Have a beautiful and harmonious week fellow humans!

Weekly Head Voices #80: There can be only one.

Week 31 of 2014, which was otherwise pretty uneventful except for bunches of hard work, ended with a trip up to the West Coast to go see the flowers.

YES PEOPLE SPRING IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER!

I made you a photo of this ominous looking Portal To Soooooomething:

These look like the gates to some far-off fantasy plane. Instead, it’s the Geelbek Restaurant in the West Coast National Park, which does serve mysteriously delicious chocolate cake.

Just so you don’t think it was overcast and non-Springy everywhere, I can assure you that those funny clouds were only over the respawning portal. Everywhere else it looked like this 360 degree photosphere I made for you (hey, we live in the future, I can show you 360 degree pannable photos; go on, pan and zoom with your mouse, or just wave your hands if you have your VR helmet on):

(I made the photosphere at the Grootvlei Guest Farm – On the Dunes House.)

Because clever people told me so, or more probably because I misunderstood them, I thought that I needed to do my Big Thinking Tasks (BTIs, for example trying to get the architecture of a new system down) in the morning. However, by the time afternoon came around, I would be too tired to take care of the MITs (Most Irritating Tasks, usually admin), and hence would postpone them till the day after, when they would just get postponed again, ad infinitum.

I recently started taking care of a few MITs first thing in the morning. This way, I actually get them done, and the BTIs still (mostly) fit.

Just to clarify things, MITs are also used by zenhabits, except there they call them Most Important Tasks. Whoops. For the sake of exposition, and to make everything more muddy, let’s call them zMITs, and my MITs iMITs (“i” is for irritating, as in iPhone, iPad, and so forth). In any case, zMITs are also to be done first thing in the morning, and at least one of the zMITs should advance your goals, let’s call it the zOMG.

Putting all of this together, I should probably start off my day by taking care of my zOMG, then a few iMITs, some zMITs and then finally the BTIs. YEAH!

I’m going through a little reading revival. After finishing Remote last week, I’m time-slicing between the following books at the moment:

  • PostgreSQL: Up and Running – I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there is just so much wow in Postgres. I’m currently using the text analysis functionality, and noticing that my SQL needs some advancing, hence the book.
  • A Tour of C++ by Bjarne Stroustroup – Everybody’s talking about C++11 and C++14. I was curious about the newer features, and Dr Stroustroup seems to know his way around the language. (In my hobby projects, C++ and Lua are playing an increasingly important role.)
  • Programming in Scala – I don’t have serious plans with this at the moment, but felt I needed to be sufficiently informed to have vigorous arguments about its utility.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – fascinating book about how the human brain functions in two parts: fast, efficient and intuitive, vs. slow, energy-heavy and rational.
  • The Psychology of Influence by Robert Cialdini – another fascinating book about how exactly humans influence each other.

I’m all out of fiction at the moment. If you have recommendations of so-called Hard SF and/or Space Opera, I’m all ears!

Talking about Science Fiction, I ran into this marvellous clip showcasing the awesome products of Clinical Graphics:

Damnit I’m so proud of Dr Krekel and his team!

Weekly Head Voices #79: Remote-controlled mushrooms.

WELL HELLO EVERYONE!

I’m a few days late, but I did bring you this free mind trip:

Click me for an even heavier trip!

On Tuesday, I had an unexpected (I somehow read over a critical paragraph in an email) but brilliant lunch at Rust en Vreede wine estate in the erudite company of three bubbly personalities. Having a bunch of vineyards like this within lunching distance is a perk of living in these parts; The superb company was just lovely serendipity.

Right next to Rust en Vreede is a vineyard that my inner nerd could not resist taking this photo of:

It might not be the prettiest, but it’s definitely functional!

I finally got around to buying and reading REMOTE: Office not Required by Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37signals. 37signals is the company that brought us the hipster web-framework of choice, Ruby on Rails. As if producing RoR, having a turnover of a few million dollars per year and writing the best-seller book REWORK was not enough, they had to go and write yet another bestseller documenting their experiences building a company based on mostly remote-working employees.

The book is full of valuable messages; Even if you’re absolutely NOT into remote working (yet), many of these observations apply to the office situation and can be used to improve matter. I’d like to summarise some of them very briefly in this post. Please discuss in the comments!

  • It seems that managers are under the impression that if they can see you at the office typing away, that you must be working, and conversely, that if you’re not there, you’re most probably goofing off. Let me start with HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA LOL LOL LOL LOLS. (that was me, not the book. For more lols, go to hackertyper, preferably in chrome, press F11 for fullscreen, and just type away on the keyboard as if you’re a monkey.) What the book explains very diplomatically, is that goofing off can happen anywhere, especially under the noses of said managers. A situation where employees are self-motivated, and know that they get judged on their actual output and not the amount of noise they make, is obviously desirable.
  • Working remotely, communication is for the largest part limited to channels that are controlled by both sender and receiver. In other words, employees get to determine when they get interrupted or not, by scheduling email or chat activity. This also means that one pays more attention to information that gets sent to and fro. Remember that interruptions are absolutely toxic to people in the zone. In an office environment, it’s hard to resist the temptation of walking over to colleague X and interrupting them with a question that could have waited until said colleague was ready to be interrupted. This is something that I’ll definitely try to apply at the new offices: Try to limit communication to chat and email, only interrupt people when it’s clear that they are interruptible.
  • They compare meetings to salt. When salt is used sparingly, it does wonders for your food. Too much, and everything is spoilt. In the remote situation, meetings do happen, but because they have to be planned much more carefully, they are perceived to be much more valuable, and the signal to noise ratio is much higher than is usually the case.
  • 37signals must be great employer. Besides all the other perks, they pay all of their employees big city salaries, even those that choose to work from lower cost rural areas. One of the important advantages for companies supporting remote working, as that they get to pick the most talented people, no matter what geography thinks. Paying everyone the same big city salary, means that they have shown an incredibly high employee and talent retention.
  • By getting your remote game on, you can eliminate and/or alleviate a whole bunch of commute problems. This is great for the employees in question (more time, less road rage), for the environment, for the company (more effective work time), but even for your fellow humans who really, for some or other reason, do need to be on the road during peak hours.

There’s much more in the book, but these are the issues that my memory decided to retain. I’m not convinced that 100% remote is the final answer though. Personally, I go to the office every day because I want to (I really don’t have to): There are a bunch of great people and friends hanging out together futzing on their computers in an awesome new lair and there’s a great deal of knowledge diffusion going on. I do think that having one’s systems and protocols configured fully to enable mixed remote working when convenient or required would give one a significant competitive edge.

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.