Weekly Head Voices #85: Gone south.

From now on I’m going to try a more fluid weekly blogging schedule. My approach up to now was to try and write up the weekly right after the weekend, at which time,however, I’m usually caught up in the usual start-of-the-week storm of, uhm, possibilities, and hence let the blog writing slip, and once you start slipping it’s a challenge to stop. So now, instead of focusing on the when (the failed after the weekend) I’m going to focus on the how often. Maybe this works better.

This past weekend, we visited Cape Point, the almost-southernmost tip of Africa, and the spot where the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean crash together for a part of the year. It’s quite beautiful, and always great to have visitors that we can take there. I took this photo of the Cape of Good Hope from the Cape Point side:

Emacs nerdery.

My first significant Emacs Lisp hacking was first blogged by Sacha Chua (Emacs goddess!) and then accepted into the org2blog upstream repository. Nerd-adrenaline-rush!

On this topic, I also published deft-turbo, my fork of the original Deft to support recursive directory searching and now also multiple file types. If you’re into Notational Velocity style note-taking and into Emacs you’ll love this.

I now use Emacs Org mode for my daily note-taking, for blogging (this post is being written in Org mode in Emacs) and since yesterday also for generating beautiful presentation slides using the fantastic org-reveal. (As you might recall, I also use Emacs with mu4e as my email client.)

It’s crazy to think that GNU Emacs was first released in March of 1985, which makes it almost 30 years old, which is practically immortal in software terms, and yet it’s still the most powerful text editor in the world today.

Finally: The cracked phone screen.

After a great number of years using smartphones without covers of any kind (they’re so beautifully designed, why cover that up?) I finally dropped my Nexus 4 from about a metre height because a WhatsApp message arrived and I thought that I could easily fumble my digital friend out of my pocket whilst typing with my other hand.

Apparently I couldn’t.

The screen acquired an impressive new crack, and the digitizer is completely dead. I’m having it repaired, because it’s still a great phone, and Android 5.0 (Lollipop) is being pushed to Nexi 4 worldwide as we speak! (Fortunately I could factory reset the phone using only the hardware buttons.)

In the meantime, I’m using a backup Motorola Atrix 4G. Thanks to Android and much open source hackage, I was able to install Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) on it, in spite of it being a 2011 phone that was practically abandoned by Motorola at the Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) stage.

The end.

If you run into me in CYBERSPACE, and I’m late with a blog post, I give you permission to badger me about it.

Have a great half-week and weekend kids!

Weekly Head Voices #84: On being grateful.

Hey, it only took three weeks this time! I’ve been working quite hard, mostly programming (oh hi there C++, I never really stopped loving you. I really like what you’ve done with the autos and the lambdas), taking care of some admin (freeagent is approximately an infinite times better for running your business in South Africa than Sage One Accounting / Pastel My Business Online, which is a textbook example of how to torture your users with an almost hilariously terrible user interface which would have been funny were it not for the fact that it is so excruciatingly painful), gearing up for open source activism (if you’re in SA and you’re into open source, please join!) and spending as much as possible free time in the beautiful surroundings.

I made you this photo sphere of the waterfall at the top of the Leopard’s Kloof trail in the Harold Porter botanical gardens, one of our favourite outdoor hangouts:

This past weekend we had the privilege of going to a weekend-long double birthday party in a place called Boggomsbaai. The subjects of said party (I didn’t want to objectify them) are two of the most interesting people I know. In spite of this foreknowledge, I was still greatly (but extremely pleasantly) surprised by the number of exceptionally interesting friends that aforementioned party subjects had managed to surround themselves with, resulting in an ever-so-slightly mind-bending gathering.

Of the many things I learnt this weekend, I would like to share these two with you:

Lesson 1 – Weekend parties are the best parties.

… we should do even more of those! It seems like the Friday warm-up-party and the Saturday morning and afternoon socialising and more warm-up, combined with a willing group of party athletes, are good ingredients for a Saturday night awesomeness crescendo! (live band and copious amounts of beer not bad ideas either)

Lesson 2 – On being grateful.

At one point I was chatting with one of the guests, a person who has done quite a bit of travelling, and who seems to have settled nicely into the role of eternal foreigner here in this strange country. Their better living tip, based on much hard-won experience, was simply this: Be grateful.

Their advice immediately made a great impression on me.

Remembering to be explicitly grateful every day (go on, identify and articulate all of the things! if you are able to read this, chances are that you have much to be grateful for) is such an elegant yet practical path to mindfulness. To boot, it fits in very nicely with being kind.

(During looking up the etymology of “to boot” on this worldwide network that interactively gives us access to just about the sum total of human knowledge whenever we want it, I just discovered that “botha” is a Gothic word meaning “advantage”. Sweet!)

Weekly Head Voices #83: Fallen Dragon

I’m still trying to find my way home out of wild deadline country (WDC), so I hope you don’t mind (again) that I crunch together two weeks of weekly head voices during these few days of recharging. Because the post ended up being quite long, I’ve inserted headings. Feel free to read any, all or none of the parts!

Software babies out in the real world

It’s great when that software system you’ve been designing gets used by real people in the real world. Check out this press release by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS): Together with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) they are building a national digital pathology database to improve pathology education nation-wide. Cool eh?!

See the screenshot at the bottom of the press release:

It’s highly probable that the software you see running on the tablet and on the screen behind it was programmed by the very fingers typing this blog post, and their owner is stoked! I built it in very close collaboration with scientists (friends in the meantime) at the CSIR (who work closely with the NHLS) and at Stone Three. It’s a whole suite of applications which I hope I can say more about soon. (By the way, PYTHON. :)

Two science fiction recommendations

I finished Peter Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon. I’m a sucker for space opera, and I thought that I’d already read everything that Hamilton wrote, but regular commenter and old friend R brought this one to my attention. Some dollars exchanged hands (well, actually I authorized a credit card transaction to pay Amazon, but dollars changing hands sounds better) and I was off. It’s a stupendously enjoyable space opera where the human race finally goes next level due to accidental contact with a sentient artefact of the most advanced space race ever. Hamilton is sneaky, because between all of the interstellar corporate “asset realisation”, and the plotting and scheming of untouchable CEOs and the fighting of bionic soldiers, he manages to build a “boy meets girl boy loses girl forever but boy creates wormhole time loop and against all odds finds his true love again at the end and gets to keep the space ship” story, by the end of which I had a slight eye-moisture problem to contend with. Highly recommended!

Based on a random recommendation by @xsyn on FB, I picked up and absolutely could not put down Blindsight by Peter Watts. Hard science fiction is awesome. I found this one intriguing initiallly due to the promised plot of a mysterious alien incursion, then the crazy mix of characters (narrator-protagonist with no emotion (more or less) due to childhood brain surgery, a linguist with 4 cooperating split personalities, a biologist with lab equipment wired directly into his sensorium, an augmented soldier, and a vampire as a captain; in this book’s universe, vampires are a hyper-intelligent human sub-species who indeed used to hunt humans), then aliens that are probbably ever more out there in terms of weirdness than that of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and finally a mind-bending discussion on the very nature of consciousness and sentience vs intelligence. The only little nitpick, is that at one point Chernoff faces are employed as a serious visualization technique, an episode during which I had to employ slightly more suspension of disbelief than usual.

Mark Shuttleworth sticks it to the man!

On October 1, 2014 the South African Supreme Court of Appeal found in favour of Mark Shuttleworth in his case against the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). To summarise: Mark Shuttleworth is a South African billionaire who made the first big chunk of his wealth when he sold Thawte Consulting (for a large part the product of his ingenuity and hard work) to Verisign.

In ’99, Shuttleworth had to emigrate, because SARB’s archaic regulations were making it unncessarily complicated to run an international business from within SA. He then had to pay SARB more than R250 (about $25 million) in levies.

The court has just determined that this levy was unconstitutional and has ordered SARB to pay it back with interest. Shuttleworth has announced that he’ll put this money in a trust, and that it will be used to uphold the constitutional rights of citizens in court against the state, in South Africa and in the rest of Africa.

In the statement on his blog, he writes:

Banks profit from exchange controls, but our economy is stifled, and the most vulnerable suffer most of all. Everything you buy is more expensive, South Africans are less globally competitive, and cross-border labourers, already vulnerable, pay the highest price of all – a shame we should work to address.

… and then further down:

The World Bank found that ‘remittance fees punish poor Africans’. South Africa scores worst of all, and according to the Payments Association of South Africa and the Reserve Bank, this is ‘..mostly related to the regulations that South African financial institutions needed to comply with, such as the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (Fica) and exchange-control regulations.’

In a very limited fashion I’ve had to deal with the completely misguided regulations of the SARB. Just receiving international payment (which should be as smooth as possible!) is an unnecessarily painful process.

The most poignant bit from Shuttleworth’s post was this:

This case also has a very strong personal element for me, because it is exchange controls which make it impossible for me to pursue the work I am most interested in from within South Africa and which thus forced me to emigrate years ago. I pursue this case in the hope that the next generation of South Africans who want to build small but global operations will be able to do so without leaving the country. In our modern, connected world, and our modern connected country, that is the right outcome for all South Africans.

SA has a great constitution. This gentleman is personally taking on the state (and in this case specifically the SARB) to ensure that the regulations are in line with the constitution, and South Africans are empowered to play their role in international business. He deserves all the support we can give.

Thanks for listening peeps, and have a brilliant week!!

Weekly Head Voices #82: Tiles and platitutes.

The reason I’m behind with blogging, is because I’m currently working on three products. One of these is already being used by real live people (!!!), and another will shortly be quite intensively interacted with by quite a large number of people, if it doesn’t melt under the load that is. The third will hopefully soon also go live in some form or another.

I might currently be at peak Django people. Peak Django!

(It also seems that my lust for programming is unnaffected by all the deadlines. Estimation on the other hand… just eeuw.)

With the time I save by not blogging that regularly, I still get to hang out with friends, drink local craft beer, and scorch meat. Here’s a photo to prove it:

Google Photos did this to my AutoBackup Android photo! (I’ve moved most of my life away from Google, but have not found a replacement for photo autobackup yet.)

During a different pleasant encounter with a different old friend at Triggerfish Brewing, enjoying some super strong locally-brewed IPAs, abovementioned old friend somehow managed to convince me to try i3. i3 is a tiling window manager. This means that it forces you to think (mostly) in a single layer on the desktop, meaning no overlapping windows. After a false start (Unity does so many things right out of the box) I’m now the happy but conflicted owner of a finely hand-tuned i3 configuration. Here’s a screenshot:

This also means that my neckbeard is probably invading my brain.

On the more wholesome front, after reading this article on the creative benefits of walking, I’ve been taking more walks at work (often with a really great old friend I have the privilege of sharing an office with these days). I can report, entirely unscientifically, that this activity has made a huge difference, especially when performed in the middle of those painfully long afternoons when one’s brain starts to feel like slowly sloshing chunky peanut butter sauce in a skull-shaped dip bowl. (oh come on, you know the feeling)

So recently a picture of the Dalai Lama with the following quote was circulating on Facebook:

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered, ‘Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.’

Now we all know the rule for pictures with famous people and quotes on them, and especially those circulating on facebook: It’s probably BS.

In this case I was conflicted, because I secretly liked what this platitude-in-sheep’s-clothing was trying to tell us: Remember to focus on the important stuff, remember to focus on the now.

However, that rule felt nothing for my conflict. It looks like the quote is not by the Dalai Lama, but by a fellow named Jim Brown, see here and here. Take that, you quotes on pictures of important people!

Fake quotes or not, focusing on the now fortunately is still real. Have a great week kids!

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!