The 2016 to 2017 transition post.

Following the rich tradition over here of year transition posts, having just rounded off a brilliant outdoorsy take-your-mind-off-of-everything vacation with friends, and also inspired by wogan.blog’s nicely personal 2016 review post, I decided that a farewell-2016 how-you-doin’-2017 post was in order.

By the way, by rich tradition I mean that I wrote the grand total of one (1) similarly titled post previously, as the year ticked from 2009 to 2010, and at least one other, disguised as a weekly head voices, as we entered 2012That last one is worth another read, early 2012 cpbotha had some really good tips. There might be more such posts, this blog has been around for more than 15 years and much of what I’ve written is not available from my short-term memory, which is nice.

Warning: This post is long (1800 words+), rambly and sometimes even a bit mushy. I hope you enjoy it!

2016: The Review

The bad, with a hopefully slightly positive outlook at the end

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way as soon as we can…

For me the biggest disappointments of 2016 were the double-whammy of the Brexit followed by the Trumpocalypse.

I really did not expect either of these events to go the way they did.

This is probably because I was, ever the optimist, over-estimating the level of human development of British and US voters.

The exclusionist, nationalist, xenophobic and in many cases even white supremacist thinking associated with Trump’s support in the US and the Leave vote in the UK are truly abhorrent.

I understand that there were many other factors at play. However, these voters were either throwing out the baby with the bath water, or, much much  worse, agreeing with the abhorrent sentiments mentioned above. Especially this second possibility depressed me greatly after the US election.

After such setbacks, one needs to look for solutions.

After Brexit, analysis showed that education level was the strongest indicator of a vote for leave or remain. Higher education was strongly associated with remain, whilst the opposite was the case for leave.

Leave / remain voter analysis by The Atlantic. Click to go to article + interactive version of this graphic.

For Trump voters, you probably guessed it, it was more or less the same idea. Less educated citizens voted for Trump, more educated citizens for Clinton.

This is yet another strong indication that we should really be pouring every resource we have into the education of our people. (yes, correlation and causation, I know. hence the terms “strong indication”. discuss in the comments if you like.)

Lawrence M. Krauss, superstar theoretical physicist and author of the book A Universe from Nothing, recently tweeted this 1920 quote by H.G. Wells:

Human history has become, more and more, a race between education and catastrophe.

The way things are going now, that thought, and movements like #feesmustfall, are more important than ever. There can be absolutely no excuse for neglecting the highest quality and accessible education (basic up to tertiary) of future generations of humans whom we expect to further our civilization.

The running and the mindful

In 2016, I ran 440km.

There are a great deal of people who have run much more than that, but those are my 440 kilometers and somehow they brought me a great deal of deep satisfaction.

During the year, my per-run distance and speed have gradually increased.

Besides fitness gradually increasing, I discovered experimentally that shorter, quicker steps get me further and a higher pace. It took a biomechanical friend to explain to me that this was about muscles operating within the more efficient middle of their full extension/contraction ranges. I could probably just have read this somewhere, but doing it the hard way and then having a friend explain it on top of Table Mountain definitely added something to the experience.

For the last 200 kilometres or so, I have listened to the exact same album: Skin by Flume. Every single run, I start that exact same album with the exact same sequence of tracks. As I learned from the SwimGeek’s blog, finding your soundtrack and putting it on repeat whilst exercising is apparently a thing.

With the surroundings over here being what they are, it does not take much to slip into a state of mindfulness.

No doing, no planning; just absorbing all of the surroundings, physical and mental, the music, and feeling how the meat-based machine that houses me propels us forward.

On the topic of mindfulness, for the last few months I added a repeat event to my todoist, helping me to spend five minutes every morning before work doing the breathing exercise. More recently I do this without any voice track, but previously Prof. Mark Williams at one point would say (original quote is due to Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD):

Each breath a new beginning; each out-breath a letting go.

There’s a whole lot in there. I have spent quite some time with it and I am far from done.

The blog

The first rule of blogging: You don’t blog about blogging.

However, I hope you don’t mind me breaking that rule to mention that in 2016, this blog was viewed 133 thousand times. I already get happy when one other person reads a post. You can imagine how happy it makes me to know that there are even slightly more people who have come here to consume some of the words I have written, and even some who have taken the time to leave behind comments!

The lion’s share of those views were due to focused posts that got picked up by some of the more popular nerd sites. I have to admit that I derived the most enjoyment from the more personal posts that were only read by friends.

Whatever the case may be, this has to be my most satisfying hobby. Thank you for the crucial role that you who read play in it!

The new life

In early(ish) 2016, our third daughter, affectionately known as Genetic Offspring Unit #3 (GOU#3 for short) around these parts, was born.

This wonderful little cellular mega-cluster is currently making noises that have the primary purpose of being immensely cute, but are also slowly starting to make sense. Her ambulation capabilities have increased immensely, and she is on the verge of standing up by herself and so we will probably have to re-arrange our interior. Again.

Long ago, I wrote here about my unexpected new role as someone else’s Tooth Fairy. In the meantime, working as a part-time tooth fairy and a full-time papa to three little humans has turned out to be a more fulfilling career than I ever could have imagined.

2017: Not much planned yet, you?

I prefer making resolutions in secret, then carrying them out or not, and only then reporting on them. However, that would mean that I would have to wrap up this post right now, and for that I’m not quite ready yet.

Experiment Alcohol Zero

One resolution that I am already executing on, is performing an interesting little experiment. After reading about the effects of alcohol on one’s (running) performance and general energy levels, I have decided to go for 30 days without a drop of alcohol to try and get a subjective idea of its potential impact.

Those of you who have spent more than 8 seconds in my or my blog’s vicinity know that I absolutely adore craft beer (this includes local, but also special beers of the Belgian type) and local wines, both of which are regularly consumed by me and “business partners” during “business lunches” in the not-unattractive local surroundings.

This decision was not taken lightly.

It is mid-morning of day 2 of Experiment Alcohol Zero (EAZ) as I write this. With the air full of smoke due to local vegetation fires, I have not been able to go running yet, but I am imagining that my energy lasted later last night, and I got up easier this morning. I have 29 more days to investigate.

Reminders for a hopefully better life

Every day, I remind myself to be the kindest I can possibly be to everyone I come into contact with. We have infinite amounts of kindness to spread.

I also remind myself to be grateful. It takes continuous practice to identify the many things one can be grateful for every day, but it is definitely worth it.

I often remind GOU#1 (#2 and #3 are not old enough yet for this lesson) that, besides the guidelines above, we have to keep on working on two more related characteristics: being useful, and being likable.

Being useful means continuously developing and refining skills that enable one to contribute value to one’s surroundings. Being likable means understanding and appreciating how we humans stick together. Kindness, see above, is an important component of this.

In 2017, I would like to write more (on this blog probably), and read more.

Rapidly morphing goalposts jumping randomly through even more randomly pulsating hyperspace, with a slightly positive outlook at the end

Yes folks, this is going to be my parting thought.

When I was much younger, I used to believe that one’s life could be “cracked”. That is, if you searched, and you worked really hard at understanding yourself, your people and your surroundings, you could come up with some kind of answer with which you would be able to attain contentment.

In the meantime I’ve come to the realisation that that Much Younger Me, although quite dashing, was of course utterly wrong.

Life is utterly dynamic. You Now are a different person from You Last Year. The same goes for people around you, and the same goes for everything around you.

The goal posts are not just moving all the time, they are an illusion flashing in and out of an hallucinogenic and especially dynamic perception.

One trick to help one deal with this, is to stop thinking about goals in the first place, and instead consider the directions of your movement.

Also keep in mind that there are no answers, only choices. You work to make the best ones you can with the means at your disposal at that moment.

Importantly, in this restless environment, some peace can be found by realising that a large part of the restlessness originates from within you. Fortunately, you have slightly more say in you than you have in your surroundings.

What one can do then, is nicely summarised by Prof. Mark Williams in the audio accompanying his mindfulness book:

The deep stillness we seek does not arise because the world is still or the mind is quiet. Stillness is nourished when we allow things to be just as they are for now, in this moment, moment by moment and breath by breath.

The End (for now)

Alright friends, that was it from me, for now. I hope that you have the best 2017 possible. I hope especially that your kindness and that of those around you flows deeply and freely.

As a parting gift, here is the high-resolution panoroma I made from the top of Table Mountain, after hiking up Platteklip Gorge with friends:

The view from the top of Table Mountain, photo by cpbotha.net. Click for high-res.

Weekly Head Voices #103: Chips!

I thought that I had nothing for the two weeks from Monday January 18 to Sunday January 31, 2016, but my notes begged to differ. They suggested the following items for your reading, listening and viewing pleasure:

Party trick

If you’re like me, you stop two to three chips short of finishing the packet so that you can explain to your conscience that you didn’t finish the whole thing. However, once or twice in my life, I’ve been faced with the terrifying conundrum of a partially finished packet of chips, but no way to seal the packet for later utilisation. Readers, agonise no more! Learn from this animated demonstration:

View post on imgur.com

Music

A musically inclined colleague recently suggested I try out In Colour, the 2015 studio album by Jamie XX. After multiple listens, I can only highly recommend that you too try this out on your favourite music source. I’m currently on Apple Music, because it is currently the best way for me and my whole family to get access to all the music we can eat. What a time to be alive! Below is one of my favourite tracks from the album:

Irrelevant miscellany, for my OCD

At Stone Three, as I have previously hinted, we have now switched to a self-hosted Mattermost. So far, this is going swimmingly, with some of the resident experts also getting the github integration going (when someone pushes to any of the linked github repos, we get a nicely formatted message on the relevant channels). If you’re curious about how exactly this compares to HipChat, Slack or Campfire (remember that?), let me know in the comments.

For the Saff Efricans reading this: When Afrihost announced that they were going to play MVNO (mobile virtual network operator), I jumped on them. Much more data, somewhat more airtime and contract-free for not very many peanuts sounded like a great deal to me. Let me know in the comments if you need more info.

Backyard linguistics

Millenials, or Generation Y, are humans that were born anywhere from the early 80s to the early 2000s. As a backyard anthropologist, one of my favourite articles about millenials is “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” by Tim Urban on the Wait but Why blog. However, I found this recent article by Jeff Guo titled “The totes amazesh way millennials are changing the English language” at the Washington Post even more fascinating.

It turns out that millenials have introduced new forms like totes delish (most delicious), abbreviash (abbreviation), appreesh (appreciate) and many more brilliant inventions into the English language. It’s fantastic seeing a language evolve like this, especially now that the internet and the hyper-connected humans on it are acting as such a powerful catalyst, and simultaneously as an instrument of observation, or should I say observash?

Inspiring quotes that you can repost if you want

This is from Soderbergh’s Solaris, which I thought was brilliant (I did read Lem’s book when I was much younger, could be that that did the trick). The quote was brought to my attention by @ckritzinger on the twitters as follows:

There are no answers. Only choices.

Let’s broaden the quote slightly. Remember, this is the dialogue between one of the last living characters on a space station, and a flesh-and-bones version of one of the other crew members that was resurrected (you know, from being completely dead) by the utterly strange planetary intelligence that is Solaris (you can also read this fine analysis):

If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here. There are no answers. Only choices.

That sounds like an even more apt bit of advice for most of us here on Earth, except that it’s only going to make the difference between dying, or dying with the disappointing belief that there must have been a solution or final answer somewhere that you were just unable to find.

There is no why.

There is only how, and that’s awesome!

Weekly Head Voices #92: The cake is a lie.

A random winter’s day view from Del Vera, where father’s day was celebrated.

The week of Monday June 15 to Sunday June 21 in bullets:

  • Ran around organizing all kinds of things for the new house. The various institutions have been cooperating very nicely.
  • Spent days trying first to fix an implementation of a GPU algorithm to simulate car paint, and then to implement an alternative algorithm by the clever boys and girls at NVIDIA. A team-mate finally got everything working by realising that the float16 texture coordinates (long story) we were using to sample a noise texture needed to be float32. Lesson learnt: If you’re seeing splotches when you’re supposed to be seeing snow, check your float precision!
  • Spent the rest of the week fighting with wkhtmltopdf, a tool that converts HTML into PDF. Unfortunately the tool is 50% webkit, and 50% black magic. Lesson learnt: wkhtmltopdf 0.12.2.1 renders internally at 74.8dpi. Accept it, calculate with it, and move on. The upshot of this is that the IP Dashboard is now 37% better at exporting charts.
  • For some time now, when I have to make decisions, I actively optimise for experiences and not for possessions. At some point in the past I read in the blogosphere that experiences make people happier than possessions, and since then I’ve been paying more attention to this. IT REALLY WORKS!(tm) Tonight I wanted to look up the sources of this idea for you (and for me). Here are the two academic papers causing most of that online discussion, and a summarising blog post::

    Carter and Gilovich’s research (based on on a number of tests and questionnaires they did with a sample of Cornell students) demonstrated that experiences were more satisfying than possessions. Their results also support at least one explanatory mechanism: Experiences are more closely connected to the self. This makes sense: Anybody else can buy the same thing you bought, but, by definition, your experience of some event or adventure is quite unique to you. To my mind, the idea of focusing on the experience rather than the cake at the end is pleasingly complementary to the adage that Life is a journey, not a destination, which I have just learned is due to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  • I’m still terrible at bullets, I know.

Dear reader(s), have a beautiful and experience-filled week!

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 #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!