Open, not closed

Posted: January 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

It’s been more than a year and a half since I attended the Global Leadership Summit for 2014. I’m a bit of a junkie when it comes to these; the excellent line up of speakers, setting aside dedicated time for bigger picture thinking and the general vibe of the event makes it something that I savour every time I go. I also find, though, that there’s at least one remarkable talk at every event that keeps coming back to me, that really affects me in a fundamental way. At the 2014 session, it was Brene Brown’s talk on shame and vulnerability.

In a nutshell, she highlighted our deep need for love and acceptance and pointed out that, to achieve these we needed to be brave, to be vulnerable. This is what would overcome the shame and disrespect that characterises organisations where love is throttled. Her GLS talk is not online, but you can hear her talking about vulnerability here:
It’s a funny thing, vulnerability. Instinctively, we avoid it because we’re afraid that opening up ourselves like that will see others either turn away or turn on us. And yet, I always seem to find the opposite to be true. I guess we all live in fear of our own vulnerability and to see another expose their own willingly reminds us of something that need so desperately to know: that we are not alone. So the most common response to voluntarily exposing vulnerability that I have found (not without exception, but overwhelmingly so) is that people incline themselves to forming a bond with you, not breaking it. And when leaders show both their vulnerability and their strength, people want to follow.
It’s ironic that, in this beautiful land of ours with so much opportunity for genuine vulnerability, our leaders – and, inevitably, all others – are set on seeking to strengthen their their position and their following by denying any vulnerability at all. It leaves the love and connection they profess to build slowly asphyxiating in the absence of what they need most. I wish that they wouldn’t do this, that they were open, not closed. Perhaps if they see it elsewhere, they will be.
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The traces we leave behind

Posted: September 18, 2014 in Uncategorized

We went meandering through an old antiques shop yesterday. It was filled with a breathtaking amount of stuff, seemingly haphazardly scattered throughout the premises, crowded with colourful memories and the smell of old furniture. You can while away hours in a place like this, picking at this and that and marvelling at the way things used to be. But something arrested my wandering eye.

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A portrait of a middle aged man sat carelessly placed on a cupboard, surrounded by an arbitrary collection of paraphernalia – some cloudy old bottles, a rusting fan, an arbitrary painting of flowers. It had no name, this painting. There was a time it wouldn’t have needed one, because it would have been placed where everyone knew who it was that was in it. “Oh”, they would have said in recognising tones, “there he is. It looks just like him!” But no one says those words now. The knowing voices and the figure in the portrait are gone. Now he sits, a figure among clutter without context, a memory without voice or meaning.

 

What are the traces we leave behind, I wondered? I’m sure that whoever was in the painting didn’t think of it lingering behind long after he’d gone; certainly, he didn’t imagine it ending up in a place like this. Yet we will all leave traces of ourselves that remain in silence after our brief and noisy time here. I was driven suddenly to try to ensure that my traces would not be wordless, not abandoned to no context. But even now, trying to describe all that I thought and felt when I saw that portrait, my words fail me and the memory of its impact runs away as if written in the wind. In the end, making sure my impact remains is not all up to me.

Do you want to be happy? It’s not a trick question. I’ll give you a hint. The answer begins with y and ends in e s.

Blaise Pascal, the mathematician and Christian philosopher, put it this way:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves

The interesting thing is that you’ll see that Pascal doesn’t judge this desire for happiness. It is simply something that is, a basic condition of man. If we’re human, our quest for happiness is a part of everything we do.

We all have to face the question of what this pursuit of happiness means, sooner or later, and I’ve had to face it in a particular way myself. In 1992 I woke up one Saturday morning with a strange pain between my shoulders which I couldn’t get rid of. I started to feel really sick and gradually weaker and weaker. I was rushed off to hospital but they could do nothing. My last memory of that day was being wheeled somewhere in a rush on a hospital bed while a nurse frantically pumped air into my lungs. When I woke up three days later, everything had changed completely.

This, then, was the issue I faced after that: could I be happy, after all that had happened? What are the things in which I found my happiness and were they now forever out of reach?

What became clear was this: there must be something deeper that offers happiness beyond stuff and mere physical gratification. The road to happiness is only a dead end if it can’t lead there no matter what the circumstances. CS Lewis expressed it well when he said:

…it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

This is the crux of it. Our desire for happiness, if we admit it, is a deep and demanding thing, but we habitually make it something light. We are far too easily pleased. The things and people we look for happiness in are by their nature finite and temporary. The only way they can give happiness is if we allow ourselves to be far too easily pleased, if we cheapen our pursuit of happiness.

But if we allow ourselves to long for a deeper happiness, then we must be looking for something that is infinitely more than things or people or ideas or philosophies. When we search for the infinite and the true, we search for God.

This kind of longing for happiness, and the way it is met, was recognised by the psalmists writing long ago. “In your presence”, they wrote, “is fullness of joy and at your right hand are eternal pleasures”. “A single day in your courts”, they said, “is better than a thousand anywhere else”. The bible is stuffed full of promises of happiness when we look for it in the inexhaustible God.

But we soon see that we have a problem when we seek God to find happiness. It’s as though life is divided into two sides. On the one side we find ourselves, others and all our stuff – the “me” side. On the other, the “not-me” side, is the inexhaustible God. Between the two there exists a gulf, an unbridgeable divide. Not only is God beyond our reach and understanding just by being God, but we find ourselves locked into our “me” side by our behaviour, by our cheap and too easily satisfied happiness. All of this is our sin and it makes that gulf un-crossable. But there is a solution.

The solution is found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Father knew that we could not reach simply by our own efforts, and so Jesus came to earth to change everything. The Word of God became flesh and lived amongst men as a historical reality. First, He showed us in a real and concrete way who God is – “If you have seen me”, He said, “you have seen the Father. I and the Father are one”. And he told us what the deepest and truest kind of happiness was – “This is eternal life”, He said, “that they should know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the One You sent to earth”.

Then He died for our sin, for all the ways we were locked into the “me”, and He put Himself across that unbridgeable gulf to reconcile us to God. He set us free. And finally, to show that His words were not just empty promises or pretty ramblings, he rose from the dead three days after being crucified, proving that everything He had said was true. He did for us what we could not and cannot do ourselves, so that we need only receive that and believe in Him to have access again to the inexhaustible God.

We have to realise also that this invitation to happiness is not just an offer, it’s an imperative. God holds all things together and every good gift comes from Him, which means that everything we find happiness in now is just an echo of Him anyway. If we ignore the imperative, at the end the gulf between us and Him will become permanent, and then there will be no way to find any happiness at all. We will have only the desire and nothing to satisfy it with, even the cheap things that we look to now.

Ultimately, then, there is happiness to be found no matter what your circumstances and this is the challenge with which we are faced. Our desire for happiness is real, essential and deep, though we blunt it by being far too easily pleased. Will we give it full rein, to the point that we realise that it can only be met in God, and accept His solution for being able to reach Him – Jesus Christ? What will we do?

Forget world domination. The villain in Thor’s second movie has aspirations to universe domination as he wants to turn out the lights of our current reality and return matters to their former state of total darkness. Perhaps he works for my local electricity company. In any event, it’s up to the god of thunder to beat the bad guy, rescue the girl and save the universe.

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The movie begins with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) telling of the efforts of the dark elves to return all things to the state of darkness that they knew before the universe began. They developed a powerful weapon called the Aether but were overcome by the Asgardians under the leadership of Odin’s father. The Asgardians could not destroy the Aether and so hid it secretly in one of the nine realms. Thousands of years later, as the nine realms begin to align, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) discovers the Aether in its hiding place and it escapes, infiltrating her body in the process. The reawakening of the Aether also reawakens the remnant of the dark elves who survived the original battle; their leader, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) sets out to hunt down the Aether and use it to return the universe to darkness. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has meanwhile brought Jane to Asgard to try to rid his love of the Aether and so Malekith’s quest leads to an invasion of Asgard and, eventually, earth. To combat this, Thor has to oull out all stops, even going so far as to enlist the aid of his disgraced and jailed brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). To say more would give things away completely.

Marvel seems to have decided on a certain formula for bringing superhero comics to the screen successfully. Focus on the action, make it spectacular, have your heroes be stereotypically larger than life, add some chemistry between the main characters and throw in a lot of quips. Marvel’s movies don’t have the complexities or depth of something like The Dark Knight, but their refusal to take themselves too seriously means that they often provide better passing entertainment. Going to Thor: The Dark World is a bit like going to MacDonald’s, then: if you go knowing exactly what you’re looking for because you’ve had it before, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

As far as the visual feel of the movie went, it felt more like a direct translation of comic panels to the screen than many others I’ve seen. It works in the context of the movie as a whole and the general thrust of what Marvel seems to be trying to achieve. The actors generally did quite well in their roles, though Chris Hemsworth’s delivery of his lines can seem a little stilted now and then; perhaps he suffers by comparison in not having the natural gravitas of, say, Anthony Hopkins. The most appealing performance, though, is delivered by Tom Hiddleston, who has the character of Loki pretty well nailed down. Constantly raining out one liners (watch for a superb take off of Captain America), he’s one character you’re always happy to see on scene. There’s even a tender moment of reconciliation between the brothers to balance out the humour, though you just know Loki’s going to conspire to use that to his advantage eventually.

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The plot also seemed to be classic comic book stuff, designed more to drive the action pieces than to be enjoyed in and of itself. It does demand a fair bit of suspension of disbelief (why did Frigga die after being run through with a blade but Loki apparently survive?) but, again, if you’re looking for tight drama, weighty speeches and character development, I’d suggest your expectations are as unrealistic as this movie obviously is.

What parts did I enjoy the most? Everything points to the action sequences, which is the intention of the movie, and they certainly appear on a grander scale than the first outing. It is as though The Avengers has set the standard for explosive and immersive action and now all these “sequels” must at least aim in the same direction. That said, they are pretty enjoyable and the end section as Malekith tries to implement his plans certainly provides for a (forgive me) thunderous finale of pounding action.

In the end, a solid addition to the Marvel stable but keep your expectations in check when you do go to see it.

Simfy-ly great!

Posted: September 1, 2012 in Uncategorized
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One thing that’s perennially frustrating as a technophile living in South Africa is knowing the wealth of technology and entertainment options that users enjoy overseas and that we simply don’t have access to. As a technophile and music lover, one of those options that I missed the most was a streaming music service like Spotify. Well, I miss it no more: Simfy has come to my rescue!
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What is Simfy (or Spotify for that matter), I hear you ask? Even if you don’t ask, I’ll tell you. It is a music streaming service that gives you access to their entire music catalogue, about 18 million tracks, for a flat fee of R60 per month. You can look up any artist or album you like and listen to it, as often as you like, as long as it’s in the catalogue. Think of it as renting all the music in your local Musica – actually, more like all the Musica stores in the country – for that R60 per month. The only requirement is Internet access, because the music is digitally available so has to be streamed or downloaded. Personally, I love the idea of thinking of a new album or artist – or even some golden oldies – and then being able to listen to that without having to go out and buy the album.

What is Simfy like in particular? It’s available on your PC, Android and iOS devices; I’ve tried all three formats and I’ve been pretty impressed. The catalogue is extensive and apparently growing all the time and I’ve been able to find all the music I’ve looked for. Admittedly my taste is fairly mainstream, so your mileage may vary, but I have been pleasantly surprised to find all the Christian contemporary music that I’ve looked for. You can search by album, artist and track and build your own playlists as well.

As mentioned, you do need Internet access to get to the music but it can at least be downloaded onto your device for offline listening as well. The music is encoded as a 192kb MP3, which is acceptable if not great quality, and works out at a download rate of about 85mb per hour. That’s still a potential downside for bandwidth limited SA, but any kind of uncapped account (which are actually pretty affordable these days) will be just fine.

For those looking askance at the thought of paying for the service, let me emphasise that it’s the only truly legal service of its kind in the country at the moment (yes, using other routes should bother you!). And, honestly, it’s half the price of one CD per month. I think that’s quite a bargain. But don’t just take my word for it: there’s a two week trial available for the service, so hop on over to simfy and give it a whirl. I think you’re going to like it.

Why I bought a Honda Jazz. Again.

Posted: August 29, 2012 in Uncategorized
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So after a good eight years with my car, a faithful Honda Jazz, it’s finally time to replace it. As you who know me can imagine, no small thought has gone into its replacement. With options galore facing me (three years of saving has been very worthwhile), I’ve come to the conclusion that the best car I can get for me right now is…another Honda Jazz. Right down to the same model. Why?

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I thought a lot about what to get, I really did. It was a bit of a thrill to think that I had a lot of options to choose from, especially if I looked at second hand models. Would I go for a sporty model? A luxury car? The thing is, the more I thought about it, the more the practical implications of my choices came home to me. And, eventually, I realised that I didn’t want to get on the treadmill of relentlessly upgrading my car: it’s not how I want to spend my money.

To be sure, cars can be beautiful things, but, if I’m honest, it’s just more stuff. And money can buy you happiness, but not through acquiring more stuff. Once you reach a certain level of comfort, your money makes you happy if you spend it on (a) other people and (b) experiences. The more I commit financially to a car, whether in the monthly instalment or in the cost of upkeep, the more I limit my options to increase happiness; as a result, I’ve tried to impose limits on this purchase rather than stretch them.

I know this sounds kind of sanctimonious, but it’s really not meant to be. I also have to admit that the Jazz I’ve bought represents a pretty good “level of comfort”, so I’m hardly suffering as a result of the decision. It might not have the most powerful engine but I live in PE, slow driving capital of the world, so anything faster would just frustrate me, and it does have all the modern conveniences like air conditioning and electric this and that. Plus it’s a low fuel consumption, low carbon emissions engine, which satisfies my growing green conscience. The point is, though, that I’m increasingly keen to draw the line here.

Does this mean that I think the Jazz should be where everyone draws the line? I don’t know, but I’d be happy if everyone gave serious thought about where that line should be and actually draw it instead of defaulting to the upgrade treadmill. Where do you think you’d draw the line?

It seems to be my lot to review tech only months after it hits end of life overseas, but at least it makes it not too old in the South African context, considering how far behind the curve we usually are! That said, I wasn’t looking for anything too current in any event when we finally succumbed to my eldest son’s pleading for a cellphone so I was delighted to find something that fitted the bill perfectly: the HTC Chacha.

A few words on the requirements first. My son was adamant that the phone should have a hardware keyboard and in was equally adamant (being of good technological taste) that it should not be a Blackberry. I also didn’t want to spend a fortune – ok, as little as possible – but was also keen to see t as close to a smartphone experience as possible, given the increasingly important role in think they’ll play. After much hunting around I was delighted to find the HTC Chacha on a contract for just R39 a month with R50 worth of airtime thrown in. Yes, MTN are basically paying me to own this phone. Does this mean it’s so bad they can’t even give it away? Read on, dearly beloved…

The Chacha is a candybar styled phone running the Android operating system and sporting a hardware keyboard set under a 2.6″ touchscreen of 320×480 resolution. The last point is important because it means that, not only does everything on the display look better, but it is also more compatible with all the great majority of the apps in Androids Play Store – all 500,000 of them. It also has 3G, WiFi, GPS and an FM radio. For a detailed look at the specs, follow this link. All in all, though, it’s very well specced for the price and certainly does better than something like the Blackberry 8520 or Nokia 303.

What’s it like to use? Well, understanding that my usage is based on the limited time I’ve had when furtively sneaking it away from my son, the overall experience is pretty good. The size is comfortable in the hand and the main selling point, the keyboard, is well constructed with the keys having good travel and a responsive feel. I personally prefer soft keyboards, but this seems like a good option for those who like hardware based ones. I also really like the fact that it runs Android, as it’s a flexible operating system with access to more apps than you can shake a stick at in the Play Store. There’s literally one for any need you can think of and, though the constant landscape orientation of the screen can feel awkward at times, HTC has generally made sure that usability remains high at all times. Love the fact that it’s so fully featured too – GPS is a bonus because it means my son, who sometimes has the sense of direction of James May from Top Gear, need not worry about getting lost; with the right app, we can even track each other’s location!

What’s not to like? On this particular model, the battery. It’ll get you through the day on light use, but any extended use means you’ll be looking for a charger before nightfall. Any kind of gaming sees the battery going down faster than a homesick mole. This can be a pain to manage if you use the phone for lots of different tasks (and why wouldn’t you?) but I guess if you’re mainly using it for messages and calls with some email it will general work for you. The other thing that would be irritating for me – although, again, not for the casual user – is the fact that it has relatively little memory, thus limiting the number of apps you can practically install. Lastly, it has a dedicated Facebook button to enable quick access of all sorts to the social networking site but I thought it rather pointless (unless you’re an absolute FB addict) and we soon remapped the button to toggle silent mode.

Since it is my son’s phone, I also asked him his opinion from a young user’s perspective. Being his first phone, he’s pretty enamoured with it and lives being able to get in touch with all of his friends, especially those far away. He likes the keyboard a lot, enjoys having a touch screen as well and particularly mentioned as a highlight the fact that Android had so many free apps to download. He was bugged by the fact that he got several errors when using Opera Mini (though I don’t think that’s peculiar to the Chacha) and also mentioned the short battery life as being irritating because it interfered with his ability to play a lot of games on the device. From a parenting point of view, that last issue may just be a plus!

All in all, this was a good purchase. I’d score it a solid seven out of ten – would have been an eight but for the battery life. It’s a good starter smartphone with a strong emphasis on messaging.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Posted: July 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

A reboot of the classic Marvel tale of the young Peter Parker who is bitten by a laboratory enhanced spider and is thus infused with spectacular powers including super strength, the ability to climb walls and lightning reflexes. Here is opponent is the Lizard, a scientist who transforms himself into a giant, aggressive reptile as a result of his experiments with cross genetic enhancements.

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Finally saw this. Though the movie comes surprisingly soon after the last of the “first” series, it’s good enough to be a legitimate contender for the title of definitive origins story. In fact, good enough might be the way to describe it all the way through. I particularly liked the way that the lead, Andrew Garfield, played the wisecracking webslinger aspect of the character and I thought that the Peter Parker/Gwen Stacey chemistry worked well. The villain (played by Rhys Ifhans and a million miles from his character in Notting Hill)  was pretty good, the special effects were pretty good, the directing was pretty good and… well, you get the idea. It was definitely a fun way to spend the afternoon, even if it couldn’t live up to the wow factor of The Avengers or the depth of Nolan’s Batman series.

Inevitably, you find yourself asking what it was like compared to the first Spiderman movie. I have to say that I remember the first as having something of a charming innocence, the way that you remember that first childhood crush as opposed to the more complex affairs that came after it. The eponymous hero here doesn’t have that fresh faced appeal but is maybe more believable as a teenager. It’s too soon to tell which one I’ll end up preferring, but at least I have two viable options.

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You may remember the excitement in the scientific community recently when some scientists claimed to have come across data suggesting that neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light. That would have had dramatic consequences for our understanding of physics, effectively overturning many of our most fundamental assumptions but also opening up a world (universe?) of intriguing possibilities. Turns out, though, that this was not to be: CERN admits faulty kit to blame

While it’s comforting to know physics can proceed with its assumptions intact, I also take it as a sobering reminder of the fact that we may remain in a very isolated state here on Earth. There are fascinating discoveries these days of planets, even possibly inhabitable ones, in solar systems beyond our own, but the distances between us and them remain measured in light years. This makes them effectively unreachable for you and me if the speed of light is an insurmountable obstacle and relegates them to no more than curiosities – tantalising ones, but forever beyond the realms of experience.

This, to be honest, is what makes me so sceptical of the ever popular stories of alien visitations and abductions. I’m not discounting the possibilities of alien life elsewhere in the universe, but the limits we find imposed on us would be no less applicable to them. Could it be a deliberate decision of the Creator for this life, I wonder, to allow for multiple worlds but to keep them ever apart? No chance of a galactic Babel, then, I guess!

Of wenches and warriors

Posted: May 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

We went to visit the Medieval Fayre in Port Elizabeth yesterday. This is an annual event organised principally by the Rotary Club and is a good excuse for some family fun while celebrating parts of medieval times.

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The event is held at the Victoria Park Grounds and consists of a variety of stalls, competitions and chances to participate in everything from archery to firing trebuchets to good ol’ dunkings (charges ranged from smelly feet to acting too much like your parents). Our two boys had a whale of a time and we spent the better part of five hours there before leaving. It wasn’t all strictly medieval as there were events like a snake exhibitions, a puppet show and constructions by scout troops but the principal theme was very much in evidence.

True to form for Port Elizabeth, most of the fun was aimed at families with children having the most chance to enjoy the activities – it would have been difficult for adults to jump onto this battering ram!

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However, it wasn’t only the kids who took advantage of the chance to dress up for the occasion: judging by the garb of many of the adults walking around, quite a few of the local eccentrics enjoyed being able to parade around in some off beat medieval kit. We even had a very realistic character from the game Assassin’s Creed walking around!

Why the fascination with things medieval, I wondered? I think the realities of those times would hardly be something to want to remember (more like Game of Thrones than Robin Hood, if you ask me), but I guess it’s the romantic version that appeals. Somehow, in a world whose complexities leave far too many lines uncomfortably blurred, the notion of a simpler time when chivalry seemed to be the order of the day appears to be a welcome return to innocence. That inclination at least, no matter if it is ill-founded, is surely one worth preserving.