Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

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.

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.

The Hunger Games

Posted: April 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

In the future state of Panamerica, an annual tournament is held where 24 tributes aged between 12 and 18 are chosen to fight to the death, the last survivor being crowned winner. This is known as the Hunger Games and is staged by the tyrannical Capitol to both subjugate and entertain the Districts under its rule. Katniss Everdeen participates when she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister: can avoid death and so triumph against the odds?

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We went to see this more as a result of a dearth of available titles than anything else, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. I have read the books and this film proved a very faithful translation of the events and plotlines of the first one; not surprising, since the author herself worked on the script. The lead character, played by Jennifer Lawrence, turned in an absorbing performance and the film was very well paced. Though the concept is brutal, the actual execution of the killings (is that too harsh a word?) was not treated indulgently and so the effect was muted, allowing you to concentrate a bit more on the emotions of the characters through it all. The final scenes of the games were a satisfying conclusion, just as in the book.

Though I know the concept is meant to be shocking, every time I found myself being sure that people would not stand for something like that I also couldn’t help thinking of the way our history as a race is littered with examples of atrocities not very far from the imagined Hunger Games. Maybe we’re not nearly as civilised as we like to think in our comfortable first world shells. At least, having read the trilogy and knowing its emphasis on the revolutionary overthrow of an opressive regime, I felt somewhat virtuous about having done something vaguely appropriate for Freedom Day.

A solid seven is how I’d score the film.

What if you already knew?

Posted: April 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

What would we do if we had certainty of events, their timing and their duration? If we knew beforehand when the good times would come and the bad times too, that one would follow the other and just how long each would last. Would we enjoy the good times more or would we live in dread of tough times?

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Thinking about this the other day, I had to conclude that there’s probably no single way that would dominate; how you answered that question would probably depend on how good your sense of perspective was now. Personally, I would probably relax and enjoy the good times more, which (when I think about it) is a bit of an indictment on my lack of ability to see the bigger picture when caught up in the moment. What would your reaction likely be?

The silly thing is that it’s our perception of thing that’d important here, because the above is already encapsulated in the “this too shall pass” maxim. If we could maybe take that to heart, we should already be able to react in a better way to every situation. Perhaps I should put that little saying on my lockscreen…

This is all in theory, of course: maybe the truth would be less attractive. I remember Morgan Freeman’s character in The Bucket List saying that he had thought it would be liberating, knowing when you would die, but that it was actually the opposite. Maybe that’s why we’re told not to divine the future; better, then, just to trust in the hands of the God who already knows it.