Skip to content

One brain to rule the city

I’ve been watching YouTube videos of Alibaba’s City Brain in action, and I must say I’m impressed.

The City Brain is an attempt to take all the data generated in a city and to use that data to manage the city by making intelligent decisions in real time.

So, for example, cameras trained on a road intersection produce massive amounts of data, but it’s in a format that is very hard for people to use effectively. This data can be interpreted, using algorithms, to identify the type of traffic and the directions in which it is flowing. The City Brain can then change the timing of traffic lights to improve the traffic flow. It can also identify problems, such as a stationary vehicle blocking a lane, or an accident, and alert the appropriate authority.

Another example is connecting fire alarm systems with street maps and building plans. Instead of just sounding an alarm, a smoke detector can inform the city fire department exactly where a fire is, can work out a route for vehicles to get to the fire, and can control other traffic along the way to allow quick access. It can also give fire-fighters information about the building, how to access it and how to navigate around inside it.

The City Brain combines data from maps of the city, cameras, traffic lights, navigation systems in public and private vehicles, sensors around the city, social media apps and networks. It provides services that include detecting traffic events, predicting congestion, optimizing traffic lights, dispatching emergency services and adjusting bus frequencies based on demand. One of the benefits of the city brain is that it’s a software based solution that uses existing data sources, so its relatively low-cost. The system does not need new infrastructure installed to make it work.

The system was first implemented in Hangzhou, China where it is reported to have increased travel speeds, reduced travel time, reduced emergency response times, and increased the accuracy of identifying incidents. It has since been rolled out in four more cities in China as well as in Macau and Kuala Lumpur. There are plans to roll it out in the Middle East.

All this is cool, but the best part, for me, is that drivers in these cities report that they drive better because they know that they are being watched.

I get excited about this because I’ve tried, too often, to drive out of Braamfontein (in Johannesburg) at 5pm on a weekday. Some drivers in Braamfontein think nothing of swinging out onto the right-hand side of the road (we drive on the left) and facing down oncoming traffic if it gets them a few car-lengths ahead. Trying to drive across an intersection when errant vehicles on your right are crossing in front of you to turn left, is a heart-stopping experience. So I really like the vision of order that a City Brain might bring to urban traffic.

Effectively, the City Brain acts as a panopticon, keeping an all-seeing eye on city drivers that results in them policing their own behavior. Now the panopticon design was intended for restrictive institutions like prisons, factories, asylums and schools, all places which sought to control the behaviour of many with the oversight of a few. Is it a good thing to constrain people so that they feel obliged to drive carefully because they are being watched?

I think so. People are not good at self-regulating. They do stupid things that make life in the city dangerous, so an external impetus to behave better improves the city for everyone at minimal cost to the individual. The City Brain is not trying to limit freedom in the way that a prison (or school) does. Rather, it is trying to make the city a better place in which to live and get around.

Could the City Brain become a monster that tries to control individuals more closely? Yes, it could, potentially, decide that you should not go to a particular part of town and you might find all routes there blocked. So we would need to make sure that important human freedoms are protected.

Does the City Brain make use of personal information in intrusive ways? That’s not clear from any of the information I have seen. I would hope that the use of individual social media data is something that can be opted into or out of. The system ought to be able to work with aggregate data, for example to assess the demand for public transport. But I can also see the benefit of using personal data. For example it would be helpful if an ambulance could be informed that the person involved in a traffic accident is diabetic. Presumably each city can decide which data can be used in which situations, in line with relevant legislation.

I think that big cities are going to find it hard to resist this kind of management tool, if it does deliver the benefits it claims. So a conversation about the potential implications, unintended consequences and where we draw the line for data use, is probably worth starting.

Drivers in Hangzhou clearly feel that they can be identified, presumably through car registration information. When cars are driver-less, the close connection between an individual and a vehicle will go away. There will also be no need to control the behaviour of the driver. Presumably, driver-less cars will obey traffic rules in the first place and when the City Brain does need to control them, for example to take charge in an emergency, it can be done directly with no messy, conscious, fleshy human getting in the way.

Personally I’m hoping that the whole traffic problem will fade away as private ownership of cars becomes a thing of the past. Shared car services and public transport will be good for the planet, and also for the physical spaces we inhabit once we grass the parking lots and plant trees. I sold my car earlier this year and I hope never to have to own another. In the meanwhile I can’t wait to have the City Brain tackle the traffic in Johannesburg.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay.

A small city throws a big party

It started with a three-page letter from the municipality in our mailbox. Painstaking translation revealed that there was to be a party, the streets would be closed, and those unfortunate enough to own cars would have to move them for the festivities. There was an offer of alternative parking, for the night.

Then I noticed that the shops along my usual stroll to work were turning white. White pompoms appeared and window displays developed a white theme. White clothing, white stationery, white jewellery, white shoes, white hats, white furnishings. Round signs appeared in the windows: Noite Branca.

I checked online and found pictures of the streets teeming with people, all dressed in white, drinks in hand. Videos confirmed music. I wondered if I could book accommodation in the next town at short notice. Crowds. Noise. Not my scene. But, being recently returned from a trip to Aveiro, I decided that I wanted to be at home. Our apartment faces away from the street. I have earplugs.

Saturday morning, the preparations began in earnest. Men with really long ladders were stringing white balloons across the street as I walked back from the supermarket. Apartment balconies were festooned with white ribbons, cloth, more balloons. The streets were emptying. Restaurants were setting up stands along the pavement. The chains between the bollards that keep the cars off the pedestrians were unlocked and rolled up.

The party was billed to start at 8 pm, so after dinner, we took a stroll around the town. It was about 8:30 pm. There was a festive air. Families were about, dressed in white finery. The children looked especially fine, in new outfits, being posed and photographed against the prettier than usual old city setting. Restaurants revealed large tables, crowded with families and friends, all dressed in white, dining enthusiastically and noisily. Groups in the street were greeting, kissing, laughing, hugging.

Mime artists were setting up, with elaborate outfits and props. I thought the operatic music added to the one performance was a great touch. It certainly drew attention. Hopeful vendors laden with balloons, white hats, and headbands twined white flowers and flashing lights paced expectantly. A couple crossed our path, dressed in black. Was it a protest? Or were they just tourists who packed light and didn’t have anything white?

There were three big stages set up, one for a live band, the other two with screens and sound systems. Music was playing, accompanied by advertising on big screens. The McDonald’s ad seemed really out of place. I am not aware of a McDonald’s here in Guimarães, although there is one, no doubt. It just seems such a remove from the little restaurants with their excellent meals. Fully-stocked bars had appeared on the streets.

We sat on the side of a fountain for a bit, until the relentless bass wore me down and we strolled home for a cup of tea, deciding that the party wasn’t going to start for some time.

IMG_20190706_215126On our second foray, things were hotting up. The streets were full, with groups of teenagers running across our path, parents dancing with smaller kids in the square, and lots of people moving from one square to the next. Shiny balloons with flashing lights distracted me. On the steps of a church a graffiti artist had set up shop, with a crate of spray-paint and paper, he was producing, and selling paintings, on the spot. Twenty Euros each. On a street corner a group of small boys hunched over a file full of Pokemon cards, oblivious. The bars were busy. So were the stands selling food.

At ten, we faded. The bands had not yet emerged. I’m sure they played. The party was billed to last until 3am. I’m sure there was dancing. I was in bed, with my earplugs in.

So here is what I am thinking this morning…

How cool is it that public parties here are for everyone, from the kids we saw everywhere to the ancient woman being pushed in a wheelchair, greeting an equally ancient man and summoning him across the road to talk?

How cool is it that the town puts on a public party? There is no entrance fee. Yes, there are vendors and local businesses all trying to sell something, but the atmosphere, the decorations, the music are all free. What a good way to spend taxes.

I try to think of analogous public events in Johannesburg and I can only think of sports events and music events; mostly with controlled access and appeal to a narrow sliver of the population. Sunday markets perhaps? Again, a particular demographic. Perhaps size has something to do with it? Perhaps it is easier to have wide appeal in a smaller city with less diversity.

And safety of course. In South Africa we’d never let our kids roam free they way they do here. I learned this week that Portugal has been ranked the third safest country in the world. Maybe it’s the frequent partying that engenders good will, fellow feeling and that elusive social cohesion. Imagine tackling crime by throwing parties.

An apartment in Guimarães

Moving from a four-bedroomed, stand-alone house in Johannesburg, complete with wonderful folding doors that open up to a large tree-filled garden, I was apprehensive about how a small apartment in Guimarães would compare. We discussed it on our flight over. What were we hoping for?

I was actually looking forward to living in a smaller space. I was tired of the work involved in a large house and the amount of stuff that accumulates to fill it. I was also excited about the prospect of living within walking distance of shops and restaurants.

There were two considerations that were really important to me. First, I wanted light. I get easily depressed and even more quickly in gloomy surroundings. Already we would be giving up the brilliance of those endless African skies and so the thought of small windows was terrifying. Second, I wanted high ceilings. If I had to live in a smaller footprint, I at least needed space above me to be able to breathe easily. After that, my only other hope was for a view that included some greenery to make up for the garden I was leaving behind.

Guimarães of course, is famous for it’s beautiful old medieval buildings. Like these. This is the street outside my apartment. I was worried about what old buildings might look like on the inside.

Our street small

The view down our street

What we have has exceeded all our expectations. Our apartment is one large room, 10 by 12 of my normal walking paces. The ceiling is high, the walls are white and there is plenty of air for me to breathe. One whole wall is taken up by four giant glass doors that open to one of the characteristically narrow balconies that adorn Guimarães buildings. It’s just wide enough to stand on and fits a chair, perfect for my morning meditation.

Living room small

The living area

The cherry on the top is that our balcony overlooks a walled garden with an assortment of small trees. Looking up we have a view of colourful buildings and the Montanha de Penha with the Santuário de Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Penha at the top. Facing away from the street also means that the apartment was quiet last night (Friday), although the street was bustling.

Walled garden small

We look down into a walled garden

The sun rises to our left and fills the room with light in the morning. I estimate that the windows face South-South-East, which is great for optimising light but avoiding the worst of the afternoon heat. We turned on the heating yesterday evening as things cooled down, but today the apartment has been warm all day.

The building we are in is newly renovated. Renovations here mean keeping the outer façade of each building intact, while modernising the interior. There is a small kitchen area and a bathroom, cleverly constructed with cupboards in front and an opaque glass wall dividing them. All very modern. In our apartment is a divider of the structural wood from the original building. At the door is a plaque with information about Senhora da Oliveira who the apartment is named after. It’s a bit like living in a museum, which is, I guess, what a heritage village is.

Apartment name small

Our apartment is named

We are the first tenants to move in, which has resulted in some excitement. Last night we had a visit from the owner of the shop downstairs to say that when we showered, she was getting water pouring into her shop. This morning we were called back from our shopping to let the man in to sort that out.

We arrived to new furniture and linen and a well-fitted, but totally empty kitchen. So this morning (Saturday) was spent buying essentials – a chopping board, mugs, a saucepan and spatula. Having spent the past six weeks getting rid of stuff, I am very wary of filling up this pristine space, so it really is only the bare essentials. We managed to cook up a pasta meal for lunch, and make tea, so I’m now quite comfortable.

The décor is very plain. Cream sofa, cream curtains around the bed. Those of you who know me will appreciate that at some point I’m going to have to bring some colour in here, or go mad. We’ll be doing that in time. For now, it is enough to have a comfortable bed to catch up on sleep and rest.

We are right bang in the middle of the old city and surrounded by tourist attractions. Walking home from our foray to buy local SIM cards we pitied the tourists who had to take all this in during a short trip. Our nine months means we can take our time, savour the streets and churches one at a time and try more of the myriad restaurants and pastry shops.

So far, the omens are all good.

View of the hill small

View of Montanha de Penha from our window

Relief and renewal in 2019

I woke up to 2019 with a sense of relief.

Last year was a difficult year for me. I was diagnosed with two medical conditions. Nothing life-threatening, but both hard to live with and necessitating uncomfortable changes. I had to navigate dementia in someone close to me, making care and financial arrangements. I found myself weirdly estranged from one of my closest friends. I did virtually no art, and felt the loss. It’s been hard.

So relief was my first sense. This year can only be better.

And yet, 2018 was also a good year.

There were two great holidays. I got to visit Ireland for the first time, and spent time with family in London and Scotland. I also got around to a long-planned visit to Mozambique. Both were lovely times – adventure, experiences, old friends, new people, new ideas, time to think.

I took a pottery class. I’d long promised myself the chance to explore a three-dimensional medium and it was as good as anticipated. There is something magical about clay and shaping it with your hands. Although it was a short time, I started to develop a real sense of skill in working the clay and produced some pieces that I’m really proud of.

I read. In 2018 I decided to keep a list of the books that I read and was surprised to find that, despite everything that was going on, I read twenty-one books, seven of them fiction. There were some lovely thought-provoking ideas among them.

I wrote a book – from start to finish. It’s been edited and is just awaiting a cover design. I hope to have it published before the end of this month. I feel good about that.

I also took the momentous decision to retire early. It was not an easy decision to leave a well-paid, tenured academic position, at the age of 57, but a necessary one as the values of the institution and my own were on divergent paths. I’ll work for the next two months, just to get a few master’s students to the end of the their research, but then I’ll be free of the institutional connection. (I’m sure I’ll still be working.) I feel good about this decision.

I hope to include in 2019 more of the things that made last year worthwhile.

I’ll be rearranging my life around writing and art. I’ll be publishing my book and writing another. I want to go back and finish my series of paintings of faces. I want to make time for  “creative nourishment”. I’ll do more reading. I want to make notes on what I read, since I’ve learned that writing things down helps to clarify my thoughts. I want to view more art, spend more time in nature, travel and meditate more.

The horrors of 2018 have made me appreciate the people in my life and I want to spend more time with those who matter to me. I’ll be traveling with my partner. Without colleagues, I’ll be looking for activities that regularly connect me to interesting people. And I have a few vacancies for new friends.

It’s odd how an arbitrary date on an arbitrary calendar can create a sense of renewal. I’m a bit skeptical, but it’s a useful device. So here’s to 2019. May it be a better year.

What changes will you be making?

A better way to learn to code

I caught up with how WeThinkCode is doing at the EduTech exhibition yesterday. I’m told they have around 300 people enrolled on the Johannesburg campus for a free, full-time, two-year course. I’m delighted to hear that the program is working and that numbers are growing.

WeThinkCode is built along the model of 42, a programming school based in France, that offers the opportunity to learn programming through peer learning and problem solving.

When I heard about 42 my first thought was “How can we bring this to Africa?” I even wrote to the school, but got no response and after discussing the idea (somewhat wistfully) with colleagues, forgot about it. So I was delighted to learn that the founders of WeThinkCode had the same thought, but also had the drive to push through and actually do it.

Here’s why I think this model is so great:

  1. The focus on being able to solve problems, quickly identifies exactly the sort of people you want to work on coding systems. (I say this as a veteran manager of large software development teams.)
  2. Peer-learning on projects is the best way to learn programming skills. It makes teachers of programming redundant of course, but that is as it should be. As a skilled programmer I only ever wanted to learn from a programmer that knew more than me in a specific domain.
  3. The two-year full-time format is long enough to encounter deep complexity. I am frustrated that what we can teach at university is only ever the simple stuff – partly because of the small amount of time allocated to coding. Coding is hard. Learning to master the hard stuff takes time.
  4. The intensive focus on coding means a shorter training period, covering more of what you really need, and faster access to real paying work.
  5. There are few people in the world with the conceptual ability to code well. It’s a rare talent. It makes sense to make sure that nobody with the ability misses out because they don’t have the opportunity. So offering this training for free just makes sense. I’m glad to see that companies who depend on programmers see the sense in it and sponsor WeThinkCode.
  6. Programming is one skill where qualifications don’t matter. Its pretty easy to decide if someone has the skill or doesn’t, so not having a degree does not stand in the way of getting coding work. Alternatives to university education are sorely needed and this is an excellent one.

If I were still hiring programmers I would be looking for graduates of this program, not least because the program lists their values as “grit – I keep going”, “curiosity – I ask why”, “connection – I am because we are” and “responsibility – its up to me”. Of course coding is also the ultimate skill for freelancers because there is a steady demand and it pays well, so its a great way to set yourself up for independence.

Some research one of my students did back in 2015 found that high school leavers (particularly girls) don’t consider a career in computing unless they have a relative who works in the field. So a big challenge is to get more people to know about this opportunity and to consider the possibility that they could do it. Spread the word!

“Keep-goings” before “start-ups”

Last year I opened and closed a business (Better, the cosiest, most creative co-work space that Joburg ever had). We opened in February and closed at the end of November. Starting a business had always been on my bucket list and so I am really glad that I finally got around to it. I met many wonderful people, lost some money, had a lot of fun, and learned a whole lot about myself in the process. That particular aspiration is now firmly ticked. I doubt very much that I will do it again, but I do want to reflect on what I learned.

What struck me most (and this is not new to anyone who knows about start-ups) is how much sheer hard work goes into starting a business. There is a lot to do. Not only is one trying to think at the strategic level (Will this fly? Is there a market? What’s the best way to position my business?), you are also taking care of the operational details. That’s hard.

One day we ran out of milk (a bit of a disaster in a co-work space) and I realised that we needed a defined process so that someone would routinely take responsibility for checking the milk supplies and placing a regular order. I have worked in many different companies and the availability of milk, or toilet paper, is something you learn to take for granted. Somewhere in the machinery of each organisation is someone who does those things, and frees up everyone else to focus on more important things. And that is good. Designing business processes is something I’d done for years in large corporates, but when you realise that those processes have to include the inane details like buying milk, it gives one a new respect for the sheer number of things that have to happen to make a business function.

Starting our little co-work space took months. We conceived of the project in June 2016 and spent the next four months looking for premises. We signed a lease in November 2016 and after two months of renovating we opened in February 2017. During that time we also registered a company and opened a bank account. The first we accomplished in a day, the second took six weeks; despite the bank we chose proudly advertising that they were the “best business bank”. So much for the private sector being efficient!

We ran for 10 months (and it really did feel like running: strenuous). In that time we devised marketing plans, ran events, tried to keep customers happy, worked on improving the space, dreamed up new products, experimented, made some money, learned what didn’t work, made losses, tried new approaches, studied the market, tried different marketing approaches, did the admin, questioned our customers, ran more events, bought cool stuff for the space, reminded ourselves of our original vision, tried different marketing approaches, tweaked our product offering…. Eventually we ran out of energy, and money, and closed at the end of November 2017.

I’ve always been a fan of the idea of business start-ups. I’ve read stories of successful start-ups with admiration and a bit of envy. I’ve encouraged others to start businesses. I’ve read about entrepreneurship and generally thought it was a good idea for people seeking freedom to set up their own small enterprises where they can have control over what they do and be true to their own values. I love the programs to support start-ups and have been behind the idea that more start-ups are a good idea.

Now I am not so sure.

Given how hard it is to start a business, and how much time, effort and money goes into the process, I wonder if the focus should be less on starting new businesses and more on keeping existing businesses going and improving. Whenever a business closes, all the time, effort and money that has gone into getting it going, is lost. The bigger a business is, the greater the loss when it closes. Surely more should be done to preserve that value and build on it?

Given how hard it is to get something off the ground, I feel that start-ups should be approached with more caution, and only initiated when there is a really, really good case for them; when an existing company can’t meet that same need. Perhaps all new ventures should begin by being incubated within larger organisations, with support for the early years? Perhaps the natural way for new ventures to start is by separating from a larger organisation when it is large enough to survive independently. I picture the little plants that grow on stalks sent out from the larger hen-and-chicken plants in my garden.

At the same time, perhaps more attention should be paid to existing businesses that are running into difficulties. We need programs to keep businesses going, to diagnose problems and examine solutions, rather than letting all the hard work that has gone into them go to waste. I guess older businesses are less exciting, less appealing than new ones, in the same way that babies are cuter than adolescents. But the work that has already been invested into adolescent, or even mature businesses, should make us more eager to see them thrive. Perhaps we need to think about shaping existing businesses to meet new needs.

I guess we start new ventures because we want something different. We have a vision for something that is not out there. That’s what makes the start-up appealing. In our case we wanted a co-work space that was cosier, friendlier, less corporate, and more in line with our values than the ones that we had encountered. Perhaps there are spaces out there that we can change, that could become more like the space we want. I guess if there really is a demand, then that demand will shape what gets provided.

I find myself now having greater respect for anyone who runs a business, new or old. I’ll be less eager in the future to recommend start-ups and more inclined to recommend working towards improvements in existing organisations. Working together to improve and build on what is already there seems only sane.

Real work, not jobs

French philosophers seem to have good ideas, but very convoluted ways of expressing them which makes them inaccessible to all but the most determined. André Gorz (Gérard Horst) is no exception. I picked up “Reclaiming Work” because I liked the subtitle on the English translation “beyond the wage-based society”. That resonated with my view that we should be thinking about the shape of the world without jobs which we are rapidly heading into, rather than wasting energy on looking for new ways to create jobs. I was hoping he might cast some light on what that future might look like.

It starts with a detailed analysis of some of the changes that have taken place in work over the last 50 years or so as businesses have sought to wring ever more “value” out of workers.

What I found most interesting was the discussion of what work really is. A dictionary might define work as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result” and to do work means to “be engaged in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a result”. Gorz argues that work has been redefined as employment for pay. Work has become “something one does or does not have” rather than “something one does” (p56). This has made work (or a job) into a commodity that people are eager to possess, and to make sacrifices for. It means that instead of work creating wealth, wealth (in the form of companies) creates jobs and people vie for the privilege of having them. This puts the individual in an unenviable place of dependency and powerlessness and we increasingly see people taking on “work” for less pay and with less protection.

Gorz reflects on why people want jobs so badly and how jobs have come to define each person’s worth in society. In the past, people have been afraid that without jobs they lose their standing in society. But, Gorz argues, that this is no longer the case. People are having to live without jobs and so are reinventing their relationships with work.

He identifies two characters of interest in the modern world of work; the “jobber” and the “freelancer” (p50). The jobber “turns insecurity into a way of life” by refusing employment and taking on just enough temporary work to meet their basic needs while maximising free time. Jobbers are described as “dissidents of capitalism” for their refusal to buy into the mirage of the job or the lure of consumerism. The freelancer is a self-employed person who, while ostensibly enjoying freedom, generally works long hours for lower wages than the employed. Gorz argues that freelancing only really works for “the elite of knowledge workers” (p51).

If neither of these two options is particularly attractive, he offers a ray of hope in the form of “Generation X”. These youngsters, he argues, show signs of creating a new society in which individuals define for themselves personal agendas of growth and ways to live, selecting employment that aligns with their agendas where possible, or taking temporary jobs to meet the need for income, while pursuing their chosen mix of work, self-development, leisure and family activities.

For this new society we need individuals who are “in charge of their own existences as autonomous subjects” (p69). This is why the anxious parents who force their children through ever more layers of education are actually setting them up for failure. Education teaches young people to submit to doing what others want them to. It does not develop “the capacity to take control of one’s own life and achieve self-esteem outside of the prescribed paths” (p69).

With these examples of living without jobs in place, Gorz says that: “the point now is not to ask whether individuals are capable of living a life no longer centred on employment, or whether they are ready for a society arranged in that way, but how that other life and society can be anticipated and prefigured right now” (p59).

The book continues with a three-part proposal for a reconfigured society.  This is where I think we need to be spending time and energy – figuring out how proposals like these can work. He presents a detailed (and convincing) argument for a guaranteed income which would have the effect of decoupling work and earning. He discusses ways in which jobs can be redistributed, by reducing hours, as well as how to do this in a way that supports the rights of individuals, rather than opening them up to further exploitation. He also proposes that the increased leisure time which results needs to be filled with cooperative activities and projects driven by individuals and discusses the kind of city infrastructures that might support this. It’s a utopia that I can buy in to.

I have a hunch that this utopia is already further along than might be expected. As unemployment rises many people are being forced into inventing this new society for themselves. Most cities contain pockets of invention and bricolage when it comes to livelihoods. People cobble together different sources of income, and spend time outside of employment on their own projects. Of course people forced into this position don’t necessarily enjoy a quality of life that the old “job” secured them. Medical insurance and pension schemes remain attached to jobs and considerable suffering results. This is why we need to focus on what policies and mechanisms these new societies need to support people who do not have jobs, now, while they are the minority. In time, most people will live this way.

The revolution is already underway.

Movies, money and morals

Last night I watched the movie “Going in Style”. Three pensioners, learning that their pension fund is to be dissolved and their homes repossessed, decide to rob a bank. The bank they choose is the one overseeing the end of the pension scheme. They are frightfully ethical about the whole thing – they only want to take as much as the pension fund owed them; they share the spoils with their community and they load their guns with blanks so that nobody can get hurt. Our elderly crooks take the time to remind children not to rob banks. There is no moral ambiguity.

I guess movies that promote lawlessness and make heroes of criminals are not new, but I was intrigued by what “Going in Style” says about society and the particular point we are at.

The movie is billed as a comedy and has some funny bits, but it deals with such a serious matter, how greed destroys lives, that it’s hard to laugh. The idea that the hard-working average Joe deserves something better than abandonment late in life is easy to get behind. The nice people, who look out for each other, are easy to sympathise with.

The faceless Bank, beautifully represented by a lavishly gilded old-fashioned banking hall, is given a concrete identity in the form of an employee who sells mortgages without being too explicit about the terms and consequences. This character is thoroughly unlikeable – uncaring, self-centred, cowardly and not in control of himself. He is easy to dislike.

It’s a movie of our time.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but sadly, it offers us no way out of the place we find ourselves in. While the movie helps us to deal with our sense of outrage and the wrongness of the world as we temporarily enjoy cheering on the protagonists, after the lights are up and we go back to contemplating the bills, bank robbery is clearly not the answer for most people. So I woke up this morning feeling despondent.

Mostly, I found myself thinking about bank employees.

If I were a bank employee, at the level of the guy who sells mortgages, I’d feel a bit cheated by the portrayal of my colleague in the movie. Bank employees at the lower level are just as much victims of the system. They are ordinary people who need a job, take what they can get, and do the bidding of corporate greed in order to keep the job. I have spoken to terrified bank employees who can’t engage in honest conversations about the bank’s products or procedures, for fear of putting a foot out of line. The average bank employee is not a decision-maker; they are simply carrying out the decisions of others.

So, what about those others? At some level, there have to be people who are making decisions. Those decisions are made based on what is best for the business and that generally equates to maximising profits or returns for shareholders, with some concern for long-term viability. Having risen through the ranks, these are people who buy into the idea that some should be quite a lot wealthier than others, and that it’s OK to have an executive earning 300 times what a cleaner earns because that executive is “worth more”. (Which makes me picture one of those moral choice dilemmas: you have the choice of saving the life of one executive or 300 cleaners, which do you pick?)

If I were a bank employee at the executive level, who earns the kind of money that makes ordinary people hate you, or even if I were at a lower level where I make the decisions on how the mortgage terms will work because I hope one day to be at the executive level, I’d be worried. The movie makes it quite clear that laws and property rights are not going to be respected for much longer because such laws support an immoral system. It’s reached the point where ordinary, nice, hard-working people who care about their families and community want to break the law. (Takes me back to the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa…)

Last week I watched Dr Zhivago, a movie that ought to be required viewing for all well-paid executives. The scenes of the wealthy family subsisting in one room of their previously glorious mansion while the other rooms are allocated as living space to the poor has to strike fear into the heart of every overpaid CEO. The scary thing is that even an average middle-class South African like me, who gave up the corporate salary about 15 years ago for an academic one, is still fabulously wealthy by comparison. I write this in my own private study, a luxury I have at home along with my own art studio, all the while picturing how the homeless people who sleep on the pavement along my route to the university could use this space. So, never mind the bank executives, what am I doing to avoid the revolution?

How do we hold on to some moral sense? How do we decide how to act? Where the hell do you start, when the system is just so complex? I’ve been giving these questions a lot of thought, as have many ordinary, decent people that I know.

Here is what I have come up with so far:

1) I don’t think fear should be our motivation to act. I believe there are really only two big motivations in life: Fear and Love. Things tend to work out better when we act out of love, rather than fear. Perhaps we need to act sooner and not leave things too late.

2) It’s really hard to conceive of an alternative to our current economic system, given the complexities of how it all works, but perhaps we can just try to make it more humane wherever we can. One way in which it could be more humane is to have a smaller gap between the highest and lowest paid in any company.

3) I’ve started to think about my money as a system of voting. Each rand I spend is a vote for the company I spend it at. That means it’s a vote for how that company behaves. If I want a better world I need to vote for companies that behave in ways that I approve of and not spend money at companies whose behaviour is immoral. Each vote means more of what I vote for and less of what I don’t vote for.

4) Since I don’t set executive salaries, what I can do is make choices about where I spend my money (and time). To make informed choices I can use public information about executive salaries and, assuming a lowest salary of, say, R10 000 a month (since I don’t have information at that end), I can calculate the ratio. This is how I learned that some banks have their CEOs earning 300 times what the cleaner earns. At the very least I should not be contributing to companies that do that. I can’t imagine a world in which I’d save the life of one executive over that of 300 cleaners.

5) One does not always have a choice, especially when it comes to banking in South Africa, but one can try to vote appropriately as much as possible. Perhaps if people shared information about companies, making these decisions would become easier. It might also create pressure for companies to reduce executive salaries and for executives to be embarrassed rather than proud of their earning power. Where choices are limited there may just be gaps in the market for new companies to fill.

6) We’ll have to work out other measures too that matter to the way we vote – like how well companies treat their employees or the environmental impact of companies.

7) I need to give more thought to where my money is invested. I am indirectly a shareholder in companies that embarrass me and I benefit from their pursuit of profit. Can I use my position to change the way these companies behave, or do I need to invest in other companies? That’s a tricky one that will take more thought.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I’d love to hear how other ordinary, nice people deal with the moral dilemma of living in one of the most unequal countries on earth.


Why I was never a soccer mom

This week I listened to a freelance single mom telling how much of her time goes into watching her son play sport. I think she’s crazy to sit at school sporting events when she could be working or creating. So, in case there are other overworked mothers out there, here is my argument. It may work for you.

I get that kids want to feel that you care about the things they care about and that they love to be able to turn to the stands and say “Did you see me, Mom?” After all we do all sorts of things to make our kids happy, many of which are less than thrilling. So, if you have nothing better to do, and you feel inclined to be nice, it makes sense to go along.

BUT, if you do have better things to do (and a feelance, single mom generally does), then its dishonest to go along and pretend to care. It also sets up a relationship which is one-sided and does not give your kids the chance to see you as a human being with your own aspirations and time challenges. I think having an honest and equitable relationship with your kids is important and has long-term benefits.

But being a mom, especially a single mom, comes with all sorts of guilt. What does a “good” mom do? How much can I look after my own interests without becoming a “bad” mom? So, in order to be clear about what to do, my rule of thumb was always to ask myself: “Would I do this for a good friend?”

If I had a good friend who cared especially about ballroom dancing, for example, something I have no interest in, I would want to be encouraging and supportive, share their joy in doing it and their accomplishments. That means that I would want to ask them about it, listen to their stories, sympathise when things go wrong and encourage them to try for the next competition. But I would do that over coffee, or at a dinner to celebrate a great success. I might go along to an extra special showcase event just to humour my friend, but I wouldn’t want to sit through the competitions and I certainly would not be at the practices. Nor would my friend expect me to.

So if I had a soccer-mad son, and I don’t care for soccer at all, I would want to ask about soccer, listen to the stories, sympathise with the problems and encourage him to try for the team. But I would do that in the afternoon over milk-shakes and brownies. I would take him out for a special celebration dinner after a big match, but I would make it clear that soccer is just not my thing. I would rather spend time with him doing something we can both enjoy together, and when he’s playing soccer, my time could be better spent writing that novel.

I always wanted to end up being really good friends with my son. For that to happen I wanted to cultivate a relationship in which he respected and cared about my needs as much as I respected and cared about his. For this to happen, he needed to know me, including knowing that I really don’t care for soccer. Pretending to care is simply dishonest and denies your kid the chance to get to know you as a human being and not just as Mom. Kids are smart. It’s quite possible to explain that you love him without having to love every activity that he gets involved with.

Allowing your kids space to enjoy activities on their own also cultivates independence and they get to figure out what they like and don’t like unencumbered by a watching parent. You want them to be intrinsically motivated, to enjoy the sport because of the joy of running or winning or being part of a team, and not because of the approval they get when they look to the stands to see you clapping.

Set them free, and set yourself free too. Tell them what you like and don’t like. Negotiate around what fun things you both like and time to do those together. Then leave soccer practice to the soccer moms and go and write that novel.


Imagine a world without borders

Although I am a South Africa, born and bred, with a South African passport, I usually travel on a British/EU passport, a happy consequence of my first marriage. I hadn’t thought much about this incredible privilege, until I had to help an elderly relative to apply for a visa to visit the UK. It took about 12 hours in total of trawling web sites, completing the application and collecting the documents, and a further 4 hour wait at the processing centre in Sandton.

After that experience, I was inspired to go looking for information about which passports are the most useful for travel. I found this great article on that ranks passports by the number of countries that each one gets you visa-free access to (or where you can pick up a visa on arrival).

The list set me thinking.

It seems clear that the passports of wealthy and powerful countries are the best to travel on, while the poorer or less powerful your country is, the lower in the ranking it tends to appear. So one can’t help concluding that passports and visas and all the border control efforts are about letting rich and powerful people travel freely, while restricting the movement of poor and powerless people – kind of like the old apartheid dompas. The dompas, as a symbol of the inequities of apartheid, became the focus of protest and discontent, culminating in the Sharpeville massacre, the year before I was born.

As I sat in the visa processing centre, looking at all the people patiently waiting in one queue after the next, I wondered what makes people so compliant in this process? What makes so many sane adults, all with better things to do with their time, give up 4 or 5 hours to sit and shuffle from chair to chair in order to obtain that piece of paper that will allow them access, just temporarily, to the rarefied air of England? I’m more used to seeing my countrymen and women out in the streets with placards, toyi-toying over their grievances.

Since one is required to switch off cellphones in the processing centre, so no email, no social media, I amused myself by imagining a world movement in which people resisted this humiliation and degradation in the same way that South Africans resisted the dompas back in the 50s. I imagined people arriving en-mass at borders to march across them. I imagined public burning of passports. I imagined the soldiers deployed to mow down the invaders and the TV footage. Would the world be as outraged by these massacres as they were by Sharpeville? And if not, why not?

We live in a world where the rich minority are entitled to live in protected enclaves, shutting out the poor majority who might mess up their pretty places. How is this different from apartheid?

I’d like to see countries ranked in terms of how many places they demand visas from. That would give us a clear idea of which countries are the most exclusive and least willing to share their special corners of the world.

Remember John Lennon?

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do…

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…