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 #70: Patterns in the sand.

(I just deliberately deleted the draft I was working on. It was not the best pattern.)

I want you to read this quote by Richard Dawkins, taken from the God Delusion:

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren’t you?

How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place …. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that does not make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

Do read it again. It’s a pretty mind-expanding realization.

However, reality is perhaps even more mind-bending than you might already think. I looked up the original work on this phenomenon by Aebersold, published in the 1953 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. On page 232 he wrote (emphasis mine):

But radioisotope studies have called our attention to much more  amazing facts on the day-to-day operation of our bodies. Medical men used to think of the human body as an engine that takes in food, air, and water mainly as fuel to keep running on. Only a small part  of the intake was thought to go for replacement of engine wear. Investigations with isotopes have demonstrated that the body instead is much more like a very fluid military regiment which may retain its size, form, and composition even though the individuals in it are continually changing: joining up, being transferred from post to post, promoted, or demoted; acting as reserves; and finally departing after varying lengths of service.

Tracer studies show that the atomic turnover in our bodies is quite rapid and quite complete. For example, in a week or two half of the sodium atoms that are now in our bodies will be replaced by other sodium atoms. The case is similar for hydrogen and phosphorus. Even half of the carbon atoms will be replaced in a month or two. And so the story goes for nearly all the elements. Indeed, it has been shown that in a year approximately 98 percent of the atoms in us now will be replaced by other atoms that we take in in our air, food, and drink.

Yes, you read that correctly. In a single year, 98% of your whole physical manifestation, your body, is completely replaced by other atoms.

This observation has led me to think differently about myself, and about you. I indeed used to think that we were a solid body of somehow consistent matter moving through life, constructed from millions of grains of sand somehow sticking together.

Now I see us all as nothing more than the continuously changing patterns that form briefly in the grains of sand of the universe. Winds blow grains of sand around, now taking part in one pattern and then in another. At some point, your body has contained parts of your best friend, and of your worst enemy. The patterns change continually; sometimes they fade away, and sometimes new patterns emerge. All of them are dependent on the same grains of sand.

Don’t dream big.

For months I’ve been walking around with this idea in my head. I was planning to turn it into a blog post titled “On not scaling”. It was going to be about deliberately choosing focus over bandwidth in one’s activities. One is often faced with the choice between scaling up (more work, more people, more things, more turnover, more for the sake of more) on the one hand, and simply not scaling on the other, instead holding on to one’s simple and linear way of doing a few things well. The former approach seems to be the one favoured and encouraged by modern society. The latter has become my preference.

I was still planning to write this post, when I ran into a TEDX talk by Jim Zemlin, whose claim to fame (at least for the purpose of his talk), is that he is technically Linus Torvalds’ boss. Linus Torvalds is the gentleman who created Linux. As you might or might not know, Linux is taking over the world at the moment: 1.3 million new telephones running Android (Linux) are switched on for the first time every day, 0.7 million new Linux-running TVs are sold every day, millions of machines at Google and Amazon run Linux, machines which run most of the web-based services that you know, almost the whole internet runs Linux, and many more embedded systems everywhere. Whether you like it or not, and as Jim Zemlin says, you probably interact with Linux multiple times per day in some way or another.

Through his World-changing creation Linux (and don’t forget the distributed version control system git), Linus arguably is one of the most concretely influential people alive today. With this in mind, skip to about 5:20 in the youtube clip (if you don’t have time, you don’t actually have to watch the clip, my summary of the relevant bit is right below):

When Linus first announced Linux 1991, he wrote I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. With hindsight, this is a fabulously humble quote. Linus was only interested in the awesome thingamabob he was working on; success and ambition were irrelevant. In the end, his creation changed the world.

From this, Zemlin draws a parallel with something the poet Robert Frost said:

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

I think this is a beautiful life lesson.

Let’s not dream too big.

Just start.

We’ve all been there.

Faced with a daunting and complicated project (thesis, book, building a house, the list goes on), or a whole bunch of projects, you start suffering from an acute sort of brain deadlock, freezing like an antelope in the headlights of the rapidly approaching deadline pick-up truck, yeehawing redneck behind the steering wheel.

Perhaps even worse than the freezing, is the procrastination. You somehow manage to start moving, except that you’re pouring all your energy into everything but the work that you actually need to do. You manage record numbers of facebook / twitter / google+ posts, and you attain mastery of coin-knuckle-rolling (marketable skill #1), but the day ends with you having made no further progress.

"Procrastination" by Viktor Hertz on flickr.
“Procrastination” by Viktor Hertz on flickr.

Both of these responses, infuriating as they may be, are completely natural. The mountain of work seems too high to surmount on time, or there seems to be more complexity than we can cognitively contain, so we simply avoid it in one way or the other.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: Just start.

Well duh, you say, of course you need to start somewhere. However, what I’m proposing is slightly more subtle. It’s more of a humble and honest life philosophy:

When faced with a daunting project of any size, deliberately and explicitly forget about completing the project. Focus only on making a start. It can be a small start, even an half-hour of focus will do the trick. Pick the most meaningful thing to start on. Take a break. Then do exactly the same. Make another start, and take a break. Look back, remind yourself that that’s another half an hour of good work that is now DONE. Keep on doing this, and keep on telling yourself: “I’m just going to make a another start, nothing big.” By the end of the first day, you will have noticed that all this starting has resulted in output, but far less anxiety and debilitation. You should also have noticed that your attitude with regard to your project has changed for the better.

Continue to focus on starting. Practise picking the most meaningful or important thing to start on. Eventually, you’ll finish your project by starting on it enough times, and soon you will be that person: The one who gets their stuff done.

(This post is inspired by Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, by the Pomodoro technique, and by my own experience keeping on starting until stuff is done.)

Rhythm of the Night. [Weekly Head Voices #66]

(This post has an extremely high slightly-insane-rambling index (SIRI). You have been warned.)

The rhythm of life

I love Unkle. Here’s the introduction to their song Back and Forth:

The only life you can get is one made up of ups and downs. The trick is in learning how to deal with the downs, increasing the number and duration of the ups, and enjoying every last drop out of them. This realisation was brought to the surface by a car advert in which the narrator claimed that time in the car equalled “quality time”. I don’t like cars, but I love quality time. It usually comes in little bits and, as I’ve reported before on this very blog, happiness and other important things also come in little bits, interspersed by other often less interesting bits. Although one has a limited extent of control over some parameters of this rhythm of ups and downs, of excitement and boredom, it can never be smoothed out. As is often the case, the best course of action is the zen one: Step outside and try to absorb completely the multi-factorial whole.

Intermezzo – this post’s title was inspired by this Italian masterpiece:

Selling one’s soul to the Virtual

A week ago, I started going through my bookshelf trying to find books that could potentially be given away or sold, freeing up some space for I’m not sure exactly what. Here’s a photo of some of them:

Books traded for space.

Each of these gave me pleasure at some point in my life, taking me on journeys to faraway corners of my imagination. Each of these contributed in some way to the ball of thoughts that is me. Years ago, I would not have considered giving even a single book away. Now I do, because I convince myself that everything is available digitally. I do read on my Kindle, where everything is far more convenient and takes up zero real-world space. I can never lose anything again. If I want anything, I can either find it in my archives or acquire it anew.

Could this line of reasoning, this position, be something that’s really quite insidious? Besides containing information on their pages, the books are tangible and visible reminders of the knowledge that they represent. By getting rid of them, could it be that I’m exchanging parts of my soul for an empty, virtual promise, for oblivion? Maybe the books should remain there, on my bookshelf, as constant physical reminders of the knowledge that they brought me — of all the knowledge that I should continually cultivate and upgrade.

Maybe the time has finally come for the 21st century reboot of Microsoft BOB. :) Then a failed (and the brunt of many jokes) experiment, perhaps now the seeds of a solution to the problem of trading the physical for the virtual. Imagine a private room where you can walk between your virtual bookshelves, a virtual haven to keep your slow, real humanity intact.

Life philosophy that works

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a prominent American astrophysicist and science communicator. Recently he took part in a IAmA session on reddit, where he answered the questions of random reddit users. To the question “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?” his answer was the following:

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

This will definitely find its place in the Unified Dogma of Me (UDM). For now, I’m doing my best to fuse it permanently with my atoms.