Skip to content

Ode to a Highveld Autumn

Small autumn-63271_1920

It’s autumn here. Driving around Johannesburg I am distracted by the dance of leaves across the road, or pirouetting down from the trees that line the streets.

I’m not a fan of autumn, since it heralds cold weather. I’m a spring person mostly – I like hope and fresh greens and soft blue skies of spring. Autumn’s sky is a colder, deeper, more steely blue.

Of course Keats springs to mind with his “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, but there is nothing misty about the mornings here. Autumn heralds the start of dry days and dry skin.

So I’ve had to compose my own Ode to a Highveld Autumn. This is how it goes:

 

Ode to a Highveld Autumn

by Judy Backhouse

Air and light are sharper, colder,

Sky blue deepens like drying paint.

Leaves accumulate, men sweep.

Dust. Skin starts to itch

as soft summer evaporates.

Advertisements

The experience of beauty

I finally got around to reading Huxley’s The Doors of Perception after finding a copy at a book sale last week. In the same volume was Heaven and Hell, described as a sequel. I was particularly struck by this passage, quoted in Heaven and Hell:

“I was sitting on the seashore, half listening to a friend arguing violently about something which merely bored me. Unconsciously to myself, I looked at a film of sand I had picked up on my hand, when I suddenly saw the exquisite beauty of every little grain of it; instead of being dull I saw that each particle was made up on a perfect geometrical pattern, with sharp angles, from each of which a brilliant shaft of light was reflected, while each tiny crystal shone like a rainbow…. The rays crossed and recrossed, making exquisite patterns of such beauty that they left me breathless…. Then, suddenly, my consciousness was lighted up from within and I saw in a vivid way how the whole universe was made up of particles of material which, no matter how dull and lifeless they might seem, were nevertheless filled with this intense and vital beauty. For a second or two the whole world appeared as a blaze of glory. When it died down, it left me with something I have never forgotten and which constantly reminds me of the beauty locked up in every minute speck of material around us.”

It turns out the title “Heaven and Hell” is totally misleading. The book (or essay, rather – it’s very short) is an exploration of how people have sought transcendent beauty, including glowing colour and shiny surfaces, in religious artifacts and through art.

Huxley reflects on how little beauty was available in only the recent past. He was writing in 1956, as we were about to be plunged into a glut of beauty and wonder in the form of brilliant colour and new materials, culminating in having all the treasures of the world easily accessible online.

It’s interesting to be reminded of how rich the world we inhabit is in colour, texture and design. Is it all too much? I think not, since the kind of direct and immersive experience of beauty that this passage is describing is still available and still as refreshing when we experience it.

 

Better things and happiness

This week we opened Better, our space for creative makers. It was exhilarating.

At lunch with my son, Andrew, at My Bread and Butter in Parkview, we were comparing notes on writing and bemoaning the loneliness of solitary work. “If only there was a place where people doing solitary creative work could get together – like having a pub to go to – where you could meet others who would understand the challenges of what you do and why you do it.”

That was in July 2016. This week we opened Better.

It was a quiet opening. We decided that throwing a party would just bring people who enjoyed a party, and that was not necessarily who we wanted. Rather we wanted excellent humans, including those who are thoughtful, optimistic, kind and creative. We particularly wanted to ferret out those more solitary types who enjoy working alone, who understand the creative process, who are trying to make freelance or portfolio lives work for themselves, and who might “get” why we made this place.

It seems to have worked. We met some awesome people during the week; inspired people with their own visions for creative work; warm, friendly people who listened and shared their stories and information; imaginative people with ideas for how to live better, and how they want Better to work for them; hopeful and positive people.

It was wonderful to hear people say how lovely the space is, and to be thanked for making it. But the ultimate compliment was being told that we had managed to make Better unthreatening. This is what we really wanted; a warm, cosy space that people can feel at home in; better than the coffee shops that most freelancers resort to.

I create for the joy of creating, but creating Better has taken that joy to another level, seeing how others respond to what we have made. It really has been an exhilarating week.

This is the first time I’ve run my own business. (I’ve been involved in running many businesses that were not my own.) There have been anxious moments as I’ve watched the money flow out with the knowledge that it is going to take some months to reverse the direction of flow.

Vishen Lakhiani in The Code of the Extraordinary Mind makes an arguement for setting goals, but using them to increase your current state of happiness without being attached to the outcome; to focus on the experiences that you get along the way to your goal. I thought it a somewhat odd idea – why set a goal and not be attached to it? But this week has made it clearer to me. Although I really want this venture to succeed and will work hard at it, if it doesn’t, it will still have been worth all the money and the effort for the experiences of the past week.

Book review: Making is Connecting

I came across Making is Connecting by David Gauntlett by accident. I was in the Wits Education Library looking for a copy of Scott’s Institutions and Organizations, and this book was on the next shelf. The title caught my eye because I am in the process of setting up Better, a space for creative makers. The book is subtitled: the social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 and it was this subtitle that intruiged me because I really want Better to be a place for people to play with crafts and technology as well as writing and art and things that people more often think of as creative.

David Gauntlett, it turns out, is an academic, a Professor of Creativity and Design at the University of Westminster. I am grateful to him for showing me that academics can publish interesting books which combine evidence and good argument, but are not dry and boring. I have come across few such books and I aspire to writing them. Here I was thinking that I might have to leave academia to do so, but apparently I don’t. Thanks, David.

The thing I like the most about this book is the attempt to define creativity as something with an emotional dimension. Traditionally studies of creativity look at the emergence of something new – novel ideas or physical artefacts or processes. They focus on how such things emerge or on the characteristics of the people who make them emerge, which leads to the limiting belief that there are creative people and, consequently, people who are not creative.

But David is interested in what he calls everyday creativity. His short definition is: “a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something which is novel in that context, and is a process which evokes a feeling of joy” (p76 in the paperback version).

As an example he cites Star Wars Uncut, a full-length remake of Star Wars in which each 15 second clip has been recreated by volunteers. This movie features an amazing outpouring of inventiveness as each volunteer has made use of the materials and people in their vicinity. The clips feature toys and models, individuals acting, and drawings animated in various ways. But what comes through clearly in the movie is the sheer exuberance of people having fun putting it together.

I am an artist and for me the pleasure I get in standing back and contemplating a finished work is that joy, that deep satisfaction at having translated an idea in my head into a visual artefact. So I found his definition resonated very well with my own experience of creativity.

While creating gives an individual the experience of joy, as well as of being heard and having an impact on the world (even a small one), making alone is not enough. David goes on to discuss happiness and social capital and the importance of human connectedness, making the argument that shared creative projects contribute to human happiness. More importantly, shared creative projects create a “disorganized (or, rather, lightly self-organized) cloud of creative links which can bind people together” (p.224), creating common goals that build social capital and lead, ultimately, to a better connected world.

He argues that the kind of people who engage in such everyday creative projects present a challenge to business as they reject the role of consumer in favour of being producers. They “want to make their own stuff” (p.224). He proposes future scenarios of a world where the value of everyday creativity has been realised. For example he suggests an education system that focuses on learning through creative making which encourages exploration, investigation and experiment within a social space. He goes on to suggest that such an education system would produce a populace inclined to take the initiative to find creative solutions to social and political problems on the local scale, with others. It’s an enticing vision.

The book was published in 2011, so it took me a while to find it, but I think it will be interesting to see how these ideas gain traction. It is difficult to assess whether people are getting more interested in creative pursuits, particularly when the measures are crude. For example one can find media reports of increased economic activity in the “creative industries” in the UK, but this definition of creative industry is a narrow one. More promising are reports of increasing sales of craft materials in the US and online. I am creating Better because I really believe that the world will be a better place if people spend time making things together and I want to make that possible. David’s book has added more substance to my belief.

 

 

 

Unexpected beauty

I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty recently. Being on holiday in the Swiss mountains probably helped.

Beauty adds so much to life – a sense of awe, joy, inspiration. When I get the chance to immerse myself in beautiful surroundings it feels like breathing some refreshing and nourishing air. Beauty feeds some deep hunger; it makes me feel alive.

On a walk in Arosa, I found this old bathtub standing outside a restaurant high up in the mountains. It was filled with water and probably there for the cows to enjoy. I thought it made an interesting, shapely foreground for this picture of the distant mountains and the lush green of late summer.

But as I took the picture, I bent down in front of the tub and was amazed to see that it was covered in an ornate pattern. The whole tub was a work of art.

mountain-bathtub-detail

What an unexpected delight to find this, when I wasn’t looking for it. Beautiful views, sun, abundant grasses, herbs and flowers AND this! My cup was running over, just like the bathtub.

We pay so little attention to beauty; it gets lost in the business or busy-ness of life, or just through lack of attention. I had walked past this bathtub on previous visits without noticing the patterns. It must be possible to look out for beauty, to notice it and to take the time to enjoy it when it appears.

 

Will Braamfontein change IBM?

On Friday (the 26th September) I was excited to be invited to tour IBMs new research facilities in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, part of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. IBM has partnered with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and has located its newest research centre here as part of that partnership. The facility had opened the day before.

It is incongruous to see IBM, with its quintessentially corporate ways, in the inner city. The tour provided some insights into how the negotiated settlement between the two cultures is progressing.

The research facility is a lovely, light space. It’s trendy, with a living wall of plants and furniture and fittings contributed by local designers. There are lampshades above the staircase made of corrugated cardboard and a roller door from the original building has been repurposed as art. Natural textures of wood and concrete prevail, with the artful use of steel partitions that look like giant punch cards. Just off the reception area is a space for relaxation with a table tennis table (that is used for lunch and meetings) and foosball, as well as a library designed to look like a “tree of knowledge”.

lights and plants

The living wall and cardboard lampshades. Photo: IBM Research

We were shown a “partner space”, for use by students and research collaborators. This open plan office included four smaller meeting alcoves with flexible partitions, each decorated to a different theme with interesting furniture. All cool enough for me to wonder how I could become a partner. We also got to see the “maker space” where wearable electronic components were being prototyped to support research into the transmission of disease. The space is well appointed, sporting a 3D printer with a unique articulated arm design.

cool alcoves

Stylish alcoves in the partner space. Photo: IBM Research

Upstairs were the researchers behind glass doors in a restricted area, in more traditional IBM fashion. Here the integrity of the architect’s vision had been brutally destroyed by a giant black three-panelled electronic screen which blocked all natural light from the office. In the gloom we got to hear the researchers talk about their research with flashy tech effects. Shapes twirled around on the monstrous screen. A discussion of how data analysis gives insight into cancer metastasis was illustrated with the outline of a body and when the screen was tapped, up popped a block of text and a different part of the body was highlighted. Wow.

Not a week before, I had visited the Joburg Smart City Day as part of the Fak’ugezi Africal Digital Innovation Festival, held at the Tshimologong Precinct and as I walked the two or three blocks to have lunch at Post my companion, a less frequent visitor to Braamfontein, commented that it was just like Maboneng, but more gritty. That is what Braamies is about. The phrase “keep it real” was invented here. No fancy décor can hide the fact that this is where real people live, on the street and in cheap flats, not in classy lofts.

IBM will have to learn to keep it real. That giant screen looks flash, but does not add to the understanding of the research and it really spoils the space. The research was interesting, but the bogus tech effects made one suspect that the results were not substantial enough to stand by themselves and needed to be made more impressive by the addition of smoke and mirrors. The heavy hand of a marketing magician detracted from what the researchers were doing. Keep it real.

In another area we were treated to a collection of displays showing a range of projects under development. There was an interactive table that simulated traffic and a drag and drop traffic controller that could be deployed to deal with problems. Cool tech, but here again, the neat rows of cars, one behind the other, had an air of unreality. When I left at 4:30pm, it was in crazy traffic with cars straddling lanes, trucks parked in the road, taxis overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic and randomly turning in front of me. Every intersection was gridlocked and every vehicle was nosing in regardless of the traffic lights and the yellow paint that plaintively suggested keeping the intersection free. If IBM is going to come up with solutions to Africa’s traffic congestion a good place to start would be with simulations that reflect the state of real traffic outside their windows. There is hope. We also saw models of traffic congestion in Johannesburg based on real-time data. That was more exciting.

There was a lot of justified pride in the openness of the new research facility and I can imagine that this is a departure from other IBM research facilities. But the openness is limited. We were told that the outdoor seating upstairs was designed so that employees could go out and connect with Braamfontein. Not much of a connection. Go out and look down, through a steel screen, but without actually mingling. When I asked whether I could make use of the maker space I was referred to public maker spaces and told that this space was reserved for partners with identified “synergy” with IBM’s research areas. Although, to be fair, I bagged a business card and was invited to talk further to establish whether there was any synergy between my research and theirs.

One IBM employee, asked how they felt about working in Braamfontein, said: “While I am in the office I am happy, but when I step outside, well, it’s Braamfontein, not Sandton.” To get to the cafes and restaurants requires a walk. There is a natural fear of change and I guess to those who don’t frequent Braamfontein, some trepidation is natural. On the tour we heard a lot about the security features of the new building including bullet proof glass on the downstairs windows and steel grids surrounding the outdoor seating upstairs.

I am genuinely excited about having IBM in a partnership with Wits. The research being done is interesting and does not need marketing hype to make it so. There is much still to learn about the potential for data and data analytics, particularly applied to addressing city problems, and I look forward to following up on that invitation to engage.

I think that IBM’s decision to locate their new research facility at Tshimologong should be applauded. I think that the moves, however tentative, towards openness are also a giant step forward for an organisation that has always struck me as unapproachable.

But I hope that the city dirt blows in and messes up the offices a little; that the IBM researchers are brave enough to get out and explore their new surroundings and find out how intriguing and complex a real city is.

Welcome to Braamfontein, IBM. I hope it changes you for the better.

Think

Steel screens reminiscent of punch cards surround the building. Photo: IBM Research

 

Slow down, do more on public transport

I have long envied those that live in cities with good public transport. I always enjoy those trips where I can walk out in the morning, get to places, and get back without having to think about how. So I am watching with great interest the transport developments here in Johannesburg.

It’s not quite there yet. For me to get to my nearest Gautrain bus station is a twenty minute walk, which I am not opposed to, but which takes time. My 15 minute commute by car to work would take me about an hour and a half by public transport. I just can’t afford that kind of time, twice a day.

But I do take trips to Pretoria, to the Innovation Hub, about once a month. One of these meetings happened on Monday. I had it in my diary for 12:30 to 01:30, and my assistant had helpfully blocked out an hour before and after for the drive.

I woke up on Monday with a horrible migraine and although that passed in about two hours, I was left with the kind of hang-over that migraine sufferers will know makes it really hard to focus. Doing the death-run on the M1 with only half my brain functioning was not an attractive prospect.

So, figuring that I would not get a lot done on Monday anyway, I opted for public transport. This entailed a drive to the nearest station, train to Hatfield, and the H2 bus to the Innovation Hub. I set out at 10 am and got there at 12 noon. The trip back started at ten to two, and I got home at twenty to four. Lots of time goes into waiting for connections.

Yet, I had the most wonderfully productive day. While waiting at the station I cleared e-mails, including those that lurk in my “to read” box for months. On the train there I read though the documents for the meeting. On the way back I read and annotated a student’s work. My job entails a lot of reading and while that’s quite hard to do on the bus, it works well on the train.

Best of all, I felt calm and relaxed. I loved watching the traffic on the (not at all free) freeway as the train glides over towards the Centurion station. The sticker on the back of the seat in front of me told me that I had dramatically reduced my carbon footprint. I could let my mind wander to the lovely jacket that the woman on the next seat was wearing, and the way the light was catching on the grass outside – the kind of wandering that makes travel a pleasure, but which would be fatal on the M1.

It takes a certain acceptance that there will be delays, and that time will be spent waiting. For this a bit of planning is worthwhile: charge your phone, make sure you have data, print out the reports you want to annotate. Once you have done that, serenity is easy; certainly a lot easier than when driving, constantly alert and watching.

Monday turned out to be relaxing and productive, despite the migraine hang-over and the trip to Pretoria. So whenever I can, I will be slowing down, taking public transport, and getting more done.