Friday, 27 September 2013

The Answer To Everything (it's not bacon)

In my previous post I wrote that trying to figure out what to search for in Google's iconic search box was the new challenge for the 21st Century.

If you're anything like me, you might have a sneaking suspicion that there is some magical key phrase which will uncover a rare page of obscure search results, and the very last one on page 999 will have THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING.

I don't know about you, but I haven't found that page yet. I've wasted hours on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, various tech websites, trying to puzzle over visa requirements, getting glimpses into faraway worlds, scored billions of worthless points on meaningless games, entered competitions without ever winning anything, and pretty much read every Explosm comic ever.

I actually had that same feeling in a book store: wandering through the shelves, full of glossy and somehow tragic books, representing collective centuries' worth of effort from their authors and yet bound for tomorrow's budget bin, I was just overcome with the feeling that the ANSWER wasn't there. It wasn't anywhere, really.

The proof for that is all around you. People are working in jobs, spending collectively more time working for somebody else than they do on anything else, including sleeping. Yes, even employers ... they just work to survive, just like the rest of us, while being responsible for their employees. It's just bigger problems.

If there was an ANSWER out there, you can bet that millions of people would have found it already and be shouting about it from the rooftops: a lot like how whichever online game you start playing these days, there is always somebody on level one million while you're struggling with level 3. People can do impossible things: fly to the moon, understand quantum mechanics, even watch a whole Bieber concert from start to finish.

I did, however, stumble across this website tonight: http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-most-famous-thought-experiments.php. It blew me away, because I didn't expect to find anything intelligent on a website called 'toptenz', and every single thought experiment is actually really fascinating ... some I'd heard of, many others not. I loved each one, because analogies like these just distill some really wise observation into an anecdote that that slow kid down the road can understand.

If there's one thing that annoys the hell out of me, it's how dishonest the world has become. In my 28 years of life, nobody has ever told me something I'm going to tell you now: we're all looking for an answer which will return us to a Garden of Eden state of existence. No crime, no worries, just lazing about in a garden naked (no clothing brands!) with a member of the opposite sex (beautiful? nothing to compare with, apart from that bear with the 'come here' eyes) to eat apples (low-fat) with and presumably start the human race.

The more I turn this simple realisation over in my mind, the more humour I can find in every frustration that the world has to offer. Looking for the ANSWER is like considering these magical weight loss products: you know they don't work, because there are still fat people. The whole reason we don't worry about polio or the Black Plague like they used to is because there is effective medication for those problems: not so much for the greasy lures of KFC.

If you're from the TLDR (I love how there are acronyms for EVERYTHING!) Twitter generation, here's a bite-size summary just for you:
Life is a blank slate with a few crayons. For the sake of humanity, draw a pretty picture. #ToBeOrNotToBe

Monday, 23 September 2013

I love humanity

Why am I not talking about Romania anymore? The easiest answer is that I have nothing new to say. Romania's just like any other country, in that the people who live within it are humans, the politicians are viewed with mistrust, the economy is shaky and love is fickle.

The 21st Century version of being presented with a blank piece of paper is opening up www.google.com and wondering what to search for. Isn't that just a sign of the times? We've moved from being content creators to content consumers, but our number one problem is still indecision.

I discovered two fascinating websites I just had to share. The first is http://didyouknowblog.com/, a great collection of random yet interesting facts. The greatest irony is that awash in a flood of content on television, radio and the Internet, you hardly ever LEARN anything even vaguely interesting.

The second site I had to share was the remarkable field of Anime Coffee Art, which was featured on the previous site. The site I found had the artist's story, and linked to her amazing Twitter gallery.

The reason this blows me away is because it's such a beautiful, simple and simultaneously wacky form of art. The bleak circumstances in the world sometimes make one feel that one should dedicate all time to work, investing, and learning a marketable skill (something conventional). I like to think that people like that artist just said 'Stuff that, I'm going to dedicate months to painting pictures in coffee'. That's inspiring and just plain ... great :)

And there you thought that waiter in that restaurant was awesome because he delivered a cup of coffee with a maple leaf pattern, lol. Life lesson 6 948 329 382: because there will always be somebody out there who has invested more time or more skill into something you're interested in, your best bet of making it count is being memorable and unique from the start. Hence, not just coffee art, but anime coffee art.




Saturday, 21 September 2013

Understanding subjectivity

It's a cold and misty morning. A car creeps down the road, its driver hunched low, while a flower seller unpacks yesterday's blossoms and hopes for sunlight. A bus belches into the scene from a cross-street. The peace is shattered by an army jet, scooting low across the rooftops.

In this story, who is the hero? Is it the car's driver, the flower seller, the bus driver or its many occupants, the jet pilot, a worker re-tiling one of the rooftops or maybe the woman tied up in the boot of the car? It's not so much about who's the hero, but rather whose storyline do you want to follow?

A clear understanding of this principle makes all 'news' a mockery (even more so when it's 'global' news and it's summarised to one minute - what do you figure are the selection criteria?). Life's so confusing precisely because we don't have the luxury of a journalist standing at one point, taking photographs from one angle, and then returning to his or her desk to write up a 300 word news story summarizing our entire life's context and goals.

When I think about 9 Billion people on earth and their interwoven storylines, my mind boggles. Is it any surprise that the developers of the latest Grand Theft Auto V game chose to weave together only three individual characters' storylines, and yet that was enough to fill up a game?

Instead of trying to live so that we can buy as many things as possible, I think it's a much better strategy to live so that you have an interesting story to tell at parties or to your mother when she calls.

PS: It also helps when somebody angers you: just remember that you don't know even a fraction of their full storyline, so whatever is annoying you now about them is just one act in a play far larger than the scenes involving you. Similarly, whatever body part hurts, whatever your bank statement looks like and whatever you're doing at the office ... there's a lot more to come. In short, in the words of Frank Costanza from Seinfeld: "Serenity Now!"

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

GTA is good for your brain!

One of the best parts of this being my personal blog and not some news site is that I can share whatever random thoughts I think you'll be interested in. That said, here's a video I stumbled across which is very relevant to me at the moment!

Finally a cogent and entertaining three-minute video explaining why Grand Theft Auto V is good for you, and you should encourage everybody you know to play it (good deed for the day: check). Watch to the end for a useful indicator to tell you've been playing video games for too long!


Monday, 16 September 2013

What Will You Surrender For 'Free' Services?

Can I say that I'm old, just because I remember the glory days of the Internet, where everything was free and pop-up banners hadn't yet been invented?

These days, news content is increasingly hidden behind paywalls, no matter what site you want to get involved in you have to register and disclose some private details, and worst of all your data is being shared left right and centre with '3rd parties'.

Case in point: LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com). I've always viewed LinkedIn with a vague bit of curiosity, like a 'Facebook for Work' sort of thing. I haven't personally seen any benefits in it, however, apart from sharing the odd joke with a professional contact who has added me.

The LinkedIn news feed just doesn't grab me, but it was a bit of a giggle to add more and more contacts I knew and then see how they connected me to pretty much anybody else I could think of.

Now, however, I'm decidedly unimpressed. I log in this time, and kudos to LinkedIn I'm warned pretty comprehensively that their privacy and user policies have been updated, and even given the option to read a watered-down summary of the changes in each instead of plowing through lengthy documents nobody has time for.

Good thing I did, because I discovered this little setting:

Whoa, what? No, you may NOT share my data with 3rd party applications. Furthermore, I'm a bit incensed that they'd automatically tick an option like that for me (I'd unticked it before the screencap). Although no doubt, some obscure clause in that very same lengthy policy no doubt gives them permission to do that.

Even spookier, however, was this part:

And yes, that one had also been ticked automatically for me. How thoughtful, LinkedIn - I'd really LOVE you to monitor all the sites I visit, just so that you can serve me with 'better' advertising (for the record I have NEVER and will NEVER click on an advertising link - there's this amazing thing called Google which is a lot more accurate).

But I've been thinking about this, you see. Clearly LinkedIn figures that in order to make more money out of me, it's only fair that they do more to extract the value they can from the only thing I'm 'giving' them: my personal data. If that means being able to sell that on to 3rd parties I have no idea of, and to marginally increase the chances that I'll actually eventually one day click on one of their adverts for them to earn some revenue, then hey ... it's only fair game because I'm getting all of the wonderful LinkedIn giggles for free. Right?

Erm, not really. I have an objection, and it's simply this: the benefits that LinkedIn are offering me aren't increasing. Yes, that may be my fault for not trying to extract the maximum value I possibly could from it - personally I chuckle at people who try so desperately to gain references on their LinkedIn profiles for the whole world to see - but just maybe that should be my prerogative. I'm using LinkedIn like I use any website - as I feel like it.

Why should LinkedIn decide to 'charge' me more for the use of its free services by extracting more value from me, when I'm not necessarily using its services more? Yes, I can de-select some of the added options if I delve deep enough into the menus like I have, but for how long will that help? It's clear that LinkedIn will keep on thinking up great new ideas to extract value from me, and they'll go ahead and subscribe me to those new options automatically (bad boy, bad!).

So really, LinkedIn, you leave me with no option but this:
I'm not saying you should do the same with your account, if you have one. Personally this wasn't an easy decision because LinkedIn has been there for as long as I can remember, slowly accumulating connections. I just think it's the right decision for me, because I don't want to give ANY website carte blanche with my personal information, or permission to happily track me for advertising purposes (countless thousands already do without my permission of course, but hey - I'll stop the ones I at least know about).

In this instance, I think it's LinkedIn which lost out. My professional networks all still exist, but LinkedIn has lost the opportunity to send me millions of less-precisely targeted adverts. Too bad, guys. Thanks for the service I got at least - it was interesting.

This isn't just about LinkedIn either. Facebook is next to go again - I've deleted my account once before, but it's just useful because I'm currently addicted to two Facebook games and I use it to authenticate for commenting on some third-party websites. The pattern here is simple: the more invasive the website tries to be, and the more integral to my life, the more I'm going to be sceptical of it and reject it more completely if I reach a tipping point.

That's probably a warning to any web developer, and also a plea. Yes, you've got great ideas and services, and no I don't expect you to give them to me for free. But before you decide to re-purpose anything I've given you about myself, first justify your case with me and try convince me that it's right to help you. Treat me like an individual, and I'll treat you like a partner.

And now, in other news...


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Lucky 5s (and Romania)

As a guy who likes patterns, I can tell you that this is my 65th post, I've just broken the 5 000 view barrier with this blog and today's the 15th of September. I also have five fingers on each hand, and five toes on each foot ... and yes, that's pushing it lol.

I feel like I should make this post count with some weighty observation, but let's face it - today's a Sunday evening, like most of the world I'm not really looking forward to Monday morning, and about the best highlight I have is the imminent launch of Grand Theft Auto V (yay, another 5!) on Tuesday. I've had my special edition on pre-order since last year already - it's the only game franchise I care about anymore, ironically because it does such a great job of mimicking real life.

I do want to say one thing about Romania, however. About the same time that the whole world was marvelling about the kid in Bucharest being bitten to death by stray dogs, the news story broke in South Africa that our country has one of the highest child murder rates in the world (this coming after the discovery of a kid found hanging in a tree).

The sad thing is that it's that sort of revelation which South Africans just accept with brief outrage, and then everybody moves on to hoot at that guy who cut them off in traffic, or to worry about their bank statements, or discuss the latest corruption scandal amongst the politicians.

South Africa is a country with too many challenges, too many causes. If you're in a position to help somebody, you're spoilt for choice: do you want to donate money for education, to help prevent domestic abuse, to feed the beggars, to save the rhino from poaching, to upgrade your community library?

What concerns you more in the current news in South Africa? The strikers in the automotive sector, destabilizing the sector and threatening the closure of the assembly plants? The miners who want salaries higher than University graduates? The truck that ran the traffic light and ended up killing 23 people? The State millions spent on the president's private house/compound? The private plane that landed at a military airfield? The rising petrol price? The new tolling of highways about to start? *shrugs* Do you pick any one thing and walk around waving a sign, protesting it, or do you just paint a bigger placard to fit in all of them?

From the outside, I have no idea how much outrage there is on the ground about the dog thing in Romania. If I was in Romania, I'd probably be pretty embarrassed that of all the possible news stories that could make international headlines, it had to be one that made the country seem just like the rest of the world thinks it is. It's a facepalm moment right up there like when South Africa made the headlines last year, when the South African police opened fire on striking miners, killing many.

Seriously though, if you're in Romania and the dogs are a serious issue of discussion, I'd count myself as pretty fortunate. All of South Africa would love to have problems like that - that's something which can be solved, whereas all of South Africa's problems are too interwoven for our incompetent Government to ever get close to a solution. Here you don't fix anything: you rather spend the time explaining why you cannot fix it.

Not that there is necessarily any single solution - it's like this massive Gordian knot which will take generations of sweat and toil, and for reasons explained elsewhere on this blog it's just not my issue to solve. If you're white, your 'role' is to take responsibility for South Africa's past, not play a starring role in its future (or that's what you're always told anyway).

Oh dear, there we go with more bitterness. If I sound angry with my country, it's because I am. I was its staunchest defender, and like everybody else just had to face the hard truth. The 'hard truth' on the meta level is so bleak that it's best to just ignore it: face inwards, and look at your work this week, your plans for the evenings, and playing that new game. That is manageable. Two and a half months and I'll be taking off for Bucharest ... that's my silver lining here :) Dogs? Bring em on - I love dogs.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Beating Distractions

As we start a new week, I'd like to share something inspirational with you. Especially given my previous rant, I think this will be a good way to fight distractions.


View larger here: http://effectivesoftwaredesign.com/2012/06/15/self-meetings-avoiding-distractions-in-the-workplace/

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Be The Change

Here's a problem with life you may have noticed: we're too busy trying to absorb information about other people that we don't have time to analyse our own lives.

I know more about what's happening in Syria than I do about what's happening with my next-door neighbours. The story behind that is that I've moved into a new apartment, and my wife and I have been intending for the past two months to just meet for coffee with our new neighbours (who we've only seen twice in the passage). The closest we've gotten is exchanging a business card and a couple of friendly e-mails - they live on a completely different schedule to our one, and in the few times when we're both home at the same time my wife and I are generally distracted by other things to do. Or felt too tired. So it's always 'next time', or 'next weekend' or 'next month'.

My wife recently made a startling observation which cuts to the heart of this irony: why is that it in a world in which we've become increasingly insulated from one another, that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have exploded? Or supposedly exploded?

At University when Facebook was still fresh and new, I loved Facebook. I kept trying to post witty comments on the photos posted by girls I fancied, and sometimes that translated into the real world and sometimes it just didn't. That's Facebook.

Now married, I have no interest in trying to prove to anybody I'm a funny guy. I don't care about sharing my current meal, or reading about yours. In fact, I've grown increasingly averse to taking photographs which just clog up a forgotten folder and are never viewed again, never mind printed.

I've definitely noticed an increasing trend towards the retro for me. I think wistfully back to my family's old photo albums, which showcased the lives of everybody living and dead. I remember renting a VCR player at the same time as a VCR movie, and because it was pretty expensive it was a really special occasion and you made sure to enjoy whichever movie you watched. I remember my grandfather treating my family to meals out, which were really something special as well.

The older I get, the less special everything has become. I have a digital photoframe I cannot be bothered to unpack, never mind figure out which of the thousands of photos I have I want to bother uploading for display. I have several cameras, two of them I haven't touched in months. I have a hard drive full of movies I just cannot get past the first fifteen minutes of, because they're all rubbish. I only ever listen to a favourite radio station because the DJs have become like old friends, but I really seriously miss buying a CD and reading the lyrics to the songs (these days you just hum along if you're paying attention to the background noise at all).

Eating out isn't special anymore, mostly because I'm on a successful diet (less is definitely more!). When I do eat out I prefer sitting down for a meal, because at least sitting down in a McDonalds or KFC makes it feel like a semi-occasion, compared to cramming food down while watching TV at home. Same thing goes for buying quality food and sweets, instead of the cheap crap you get at the check-out counters.

My life at the moment has become a fight for survival. I'm trying to cut down the useless clutter going into my brain. I'm trying to enjoy simple moments more, instead of pretending I'm enjoying complex moments (seriously, I have NEVER gotten the whole clubbing scene).

I hate what the world has become. The biggest challenge when buying anything is to ensure that you won't feel buyer's remorse the second you bought it. If you can stave that off for a month at least, you're doing great. That's sad - what's the point of buying anything, if you are certain that you're going to regret it?

I'm describing my life now, just another rat in the rat race that Johannesburg city life has become. It might be very different where you live. I suspect it's probably the same, however. I keep reading about people wanting to escape into rural environments, but I don't think any more than a fraction ever do.

We have dreams for our lives, and it's seldom you'll obtain them (I wanted to be a NASA astronaut). My biggest frustration is that nobody is talking about these things openly. It's like when you become an adult, you have to keep up this pretense that everything is easy, even when it just isn't. It reminds me of the animal kingdom, where if you show weakness you get attacked.

To refer back to an earlier post, in 200 000 years of humanity, we've really gotten nowhere. We have electricity, yay, but we use it to power our televisions to numb our minds with games and irrelevant news headlines and gameshows which are clearly staged. When's the last time anybody did something truly amazing with electricity? Same thing goes for medical care, which helps us live our fruitless lives for longer than ever, and our extended lifespans giving us new headaches over retirement savings.

If you're like me, and share the above sentiments, then this is my way of telling you that you're not alone.

The greatest unfairness in life, however, is employment. Seeing people saying they hope they can find a job. Clever, funny, hopeful people, unable to even find an opportunity to become wage slaves and having their lives flushed down the toilet as a result. The only positive for employment is that it's better than unemployment.

Now's maybe a great time to share a quote from a movie I watched (it was a DVD rental, mkay, so it was a mini-occassion). There's this great scene in the Jack Reacher movie, where Jack stands with another character and speaks to her about the people in the neighbouring office block, all visible through the windows at night - stuck in their cubicles.
Jack Reacher: Look out the window. Tell me what you see. You see the same things that you see everyday. Well, imagine you've never seen it. Imagine you spent your whole life in other parts of the world, being told everyday that you're defending freedom. Then you finally decide you've had enough. Time to see what you've given up your whole life for, everything. Get some of that "freedom" for yourself. Look at the people. You tell me which ones are free. Free from debt. Anxiety. Stress. Fear. Failure. Indignity. Betrayal. How many wish that they were born knowing what they know now? Ask yourself how many would do things the same way over again, and how many would live their lives like me.

There has to be a better way to approach life. For all of us. Here's to hoping we can find a solution which revolutionises everything we know, so that ramblings like these are transformed beyond ramblings into catalysts for change.

If you're frustrated, that's awesome. Frustration results in change - being content can often just be a mask to hide unsatisfactory routines. I'm as frustrated as hell. I don't just want to make my life better: I want to make EVERYBODY's life better!

This is my tribute to being in your late 20s and angry. My sincerest hope is that by the time I'm in my late 30s I've done something about it. How awful it is to look back at yourself and chuckle at how naive you were. I'm not going to be that guy.