Weekly Head Voices #147: The yearly post-Mpumalanga post.

The Lilac-Breasted Roller. I met this enchanting and almost surrealistically pretty creature for the first time two weeks ago.

Time period covered by this post: Monday June 18 to Sunday July 8.
Reason for extended absence: Holiday-based recharge.
Holiday rating: 13/10. Math is irrelevant.

It’s relatively quiet from the European side of my family. I trust (partly confirmed by the grapevine) that my peeps over there are having themselves a wonderful rest.

Over here on the tip of the African continent, we migrated temporarily about 1800km to the North-East, to Mpumalanga, where winter is a rather theoretical concept.

The week was amazing.

It’s hard to explain the emotions evoked by the rugged beauty of the surroundings, and by the African sun, albeit slightly gentler than usual, beating down on one’s back.

Added to that, every evening we were embroiled in a non-competitive competition to outcook the previous evening’s culinary adventure.

All of this made for a rather primal holiday experience filled with wild animals, eating, old-fashioned human contact (including a serendipitous meeting with friends I had last seen 20 years ago), thinking and running.

This weekend we’ll hopefully return to the usual WHV programming, with more, you know, content.

Until then, I would like to leave you with the following sunset.

Potjie, overflowing with Zen.

Weekly Head Voices #107: Balance.

mpumalanga_sunset

That’s how the African sun sets in Mpumalanga.

cheetah1

… and this is more or less what it looks like when a cheetah decides to grace you with its presence. We had it all to ourselves (this is quite unusual in the Kruger National Park with an animal of this level of celebrity) and were able to follow it until it wandered further away from the road, probably on the lookout for some dinner.

It was a brilliant week-long getaway with the newest little member of the family. The time is just long enough to allow for a complete switch-off (see the “you are turning into a cyborg” section of one of the previous KNP posts) with the balmy weather and the wild animal tracking just adding to the fun.

On the nerd front, I convinced my employer to get me a new Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic desktop. As I spend 8 hours or more monkey-typing on some sort of keyboard every day, having one that works well is quite important. I might have found a new favourite in the Sculpt Ergonomic. It looks like this:

ms_sculpt_ergonomic

It’s probably the most strangely shaped keyboard I have ever worked on, but it has grown on me quite quickly. The strange shape helps keep my arms and wrists in an even better posture than with the Comfort Curve 3000 (my previous favourite), and the chiclet keys combine just the right amounts of finger travel economy and tactile feedback in my opinion. My only gripe is that the escape key, which as Emacs user I quite often use, is smaller than the other keys and has a completely different feel.

(An extremely brief final aside on the nerd front: I briefly tried Evernote again as my current note-taking strategy does not support a good web-clipper, and my all-singing all-dancing non-linear knowledge management prototype, now in its seventh complete rewrite, is not ready yet. They’ve updated the Evernote look, but even with 5 or 6 clipped web pages in total in my database, I had trouble getting the android app to sync up with the web version.)

During my compulsive daily RSS feed / twitter / Google+ reading, I came across this interesting summary of recent research on changes in the aging brain. It’s the type of article that interests one especially when one is in possession of such an aging brain, and perhaps also when it reflects one’s own experiences, all completely hypothetically of course.

In any case, in yet another one of those examples of youth being wasted on the young it’s long been known that your brain is at its maximum processing capacity and speed during one’s early twenties. In my early twenties, the last thing I was thinking about was my mental performance peaking. It’s a sobering counterpoint that my brain’s processing speed has been steadily declining since my late twenties.

As a sort of a consolation prize, it is starting to look like our brains, when we succeed in keeping them healthy, develop more balanced patterns of activity as we get older. We work smarter rather than harder, unlike those twenty year olds who refuse to get off my lawn.

The article mentions the hypothesis that there might be something that could be called the neuro-circuitry of wisdom, consisting of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for rationality, discipline, and self-preservation), the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (associated with “kind, supportive, social, and emotional behavior needed for survival of species”), the anterior cingulate (which mediates conflicts between parts of the prefrontal cortex), and the striatum with amygdala (part of the reward circuitry) . With age, brain activity between all of these regions reaches a sort of balance, leading to the owner of said brain demonstrating feats of wisdom which will probably be witnessed by exactly no-one, almost like trees falling in the forest, or almost like the posts on this blog, minus the wisdom.

Here’s to hoping that, as we all near our inevitable final sunsets, we do in fact become ever so slightly wiser, and ever so slightly more capable of contributing peace and kindness to our surroundings; even, or perhaps especially, when no-one is watching.

(I just reminded me of Reggie Watts… see below.)

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.