Sunday, December 6, 2009

Merry Year End Function

What a weekend of festivities! I am a four-day week's biggest fan, and this last one did not disappoint. If anyone was unsure of this before, there is not much you can do to improve on a Friday spent on a yacht off Clifton sipping champagne, eating sushi and luring criminally hot lifeguards onto the boat with promises of lindt chocolate. I bonded with my colleagues, I got my summer tan back, I partook in the current marketing world's obsession of Gen Y video content creation. My only regret was that the mild sunstroke and not-so-mild drunkenness obliterated any chances of a second wind and I missed the Long Street World Cup Draw party on Friday night. Though I could hear the vuvuzelas from my bed all the way over on Roeland Street, and lifted my head from my pillow and smiled in solidarity with my fellow countrymen.

And Saturday may have marked the final transition into adulthood. Our very own Christmas party (which my friend informs me is a discriminatory term, so we delighted in bellowing 'happy year end function' to each other instead) without parents and family. Kelly and Stace cooked up such a feast of gammons and roast chicken and all the good things that go with them. And the sixteen of us sat in one long table in the garden with delicious food, great music and wonderful friends all around. It was such a warming experience that I completely understand why holiday paraphernalia always has such vomit-inducing, cheesy messages in it: parties like that really do remind you how all you need in life is to have friends that you love.

So thank you team for an amazing year.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The end of demographics

Separate toilets really annoy me. They've been a pet hate of mine for years, since I was chased out of the ladies while trying to tell a girl friend of mine a story while she fixed her make-up back in high school. They are the last bastion of apartheid - segregating people in exactly the same meaningless way as having whites only entrances. The fact that no one has noticed this means there's either a male conspiracy afoot to relegate queueing to women only, or women are paranoid that unisex toilets would become iniquitous dens of sex and sin.

But I get that the world moves slowly. The kind of blunt compartmentalising of people that characterised apartheid and nationalism and feminism and marketing is giving way to an enlightened view of human nature. The digital era is making crude generalisations obsolete. Media channels are fragmenting to an almost individual level, people are forming communities based on interest and passion rather than geography, and marketers are realising that it's better to speak to people when they are interested in you. Demographic and psychographic profiling is all well and good, but most of your messages will miss their target, unless you're targeting those who are searching, seeking, speaking about your product.

In short, the age of demographics is over. Why bother trying to predict behaviour based on crude generalisations about groups of people? People choose what groups are meaningful to them, and they may be nothing like the groups you think they belong to. Now you can track actual behaviour of individuals online. It's increasingly obvious that our identities are not about "who we are", but rather, "what we do". We're free to be ourselves, to define ourselves by our actions and interests, and not be boxed in by descriptors.

And is it really fair, in the age of the empowered individual, to tell us where to pee or who we're allowed to converse with at the basin?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A beautiful mind (over sushi)

Last night I went for dinner with a friend of mine who is so ridiculously intelligent, witty and erudite it makes me feel like I'm living in a Cinema Nouveau subtitled art movie set in Paris in the inter war years every time I see him. He brings up things like Stoicism's contribution to early Christianity while you ask him to pass you the soy sauce, an apparently obvious continuation of the conversation we had been having about Freudian psychology and the reasons for being attracted to people who make us unhappy. It's a wild ride. It's never a monologue and it's always funny. You can't sit back and mention the banalities of everyday life for fear of the disappointment in his face. There is no relief; it's hard to keep up, but there is no option but to up the ante and join the conversation. I usually drink heavily to relieve the pressure to be entertaining. But I always leave these high-voltage urbane mind-offs feeling oddly rejuvenated. They remind me that it's not things or events that make life interesting, it's our reaction to them. The external world is just a series of events: our minds and our decisions and our creative narrative are what bring the magic. Being bored just means you're being lazy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I have to be honest, I had no idea what to expect when  my friend Jayne told me about the show she was in (and she was cunningly short on detail). Theatre for the deaf? Seriously? Was that miming and sign-language with big overdone facial expressions? But I'm always interested to try new things, and was feeling particularly like I needed a break from drinking and obsessing about The Break Up. So I took what I now realise was my hideously patronising attitude, and another friend, to go support.

And you know what, the piece was unbelievable. It was magical and terrifying and brilliant. It starts with a man lying dying on a hospital bed and immediately throws you into the delusions and visions he is having - the whole piece is set in his tormented dreams, or the underworld. And nothing makes it quite so underworldly as having no speech, only eerie music and garbled, nightmarish sounds - the kind you make when you're trying to scream or speak in a dream, but can't. The piece is very, very dark, and pretty freaky. Everyone is in masks (think Eyes Wide Shut but without the sex and with more soul-eating) which capture the sadness and idiosyncrasies of the individual characters perfectly. And there is some relief in the form of a fragile romance.

Quack really takes you into another world and is something truly unique and beautiful and moving. A rich experience. Thanks Jayne! And I reckon you should all go down to the Intimate Theatre on Hidding Campus and see it. (Before the 21st, or you'll miss it)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Life Less Ordinary

It's probably the result of growing up with a New Ager for a mom, in a home where it was always assumed that the world was on the brink of a vast spiritual awakening. I've always believed my life would coincide with the turning point in human history; a period of great turmoil and chaos and change, but ultimately, the end of our destructive patterns and the start of a Golden Age (for those who survive the transition). It would be filled with war and plagues and the collapse of civilization as we know it. That all coincided beautifully with the predictions of ecological collapse the scientists talk of, the economic collapse we're now undergoing, the Mayan Calendar, and even pop culture and Hollywood sci-fi. A perfect symphony of logic and truth.

But what if these are all delusions of grandeur? Perhaps these fears are all the result of animal instincts for survival being cleverly played by dreamers and marketers? I was sitting on the bench press machine at gym this evening and I had the most extraordinary of thoughts: that I may in fact lead an ordinary life, in ordinary times. It was the first time I'd even contemplated that option! I pondered the approaching descent into the 2nd half of my twenties and was truly surprised to think of myself growing old and dying, like so many generations before me. No great war of good and evil.

And, as with all thoughts of mortality, I immediately felt two conflicting emotions: disappointment and relief. The first is what I'm going to have to work on: to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and meaning in the every day details of my life.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Black and White

That's right, ladies and gents, this blog has indeed done a Michael Jackson and moved over from a black background to a white background. I'd like to put it out there that this does not reflect the changing attitudes and frame of reference that come from living in Cape Town for nearly a year, and that my heart is still in black backgrounds. It comes from the good solid advice I got from Max and his as-yet-unknown-to-me-but-surely-brilliant copywriter that people strain to read white on black. I'm doing it for your eyes! And listening to my own personal social media guru (He's 3 years younger, after all)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some great emo SA indie pop

Wow. I discovered these guys on Catherine's show this afternoon. South African music has come a long way since the days of Mango Groove! :) Apparently Dear Reader are huge in Europe. It's been a week of great local music discoveries, starting with Rocking the Daisies last weekend (more on that to follow soon...)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

the anti-brand called You

Bernard Allen makes an excellent point in his blog about how branding can lead to extremism. It makes sense - building a brand is about building a consistent perception of difference. A brand is only distinct if it is seen to be unique, special, unlike it's competitors. If there is no such perception of difference, there are no brands; only commodities.
A guy I was once seeing told me that my brand of struggling artist/intellectual homo was everywhere in Cape Town and that I'd need a new differentiator. Self-help books talk about building the Brand Called You for career purposes: to get noticed, to shine. Management papers fret over whether or not to let employees build their personal brands instead of, or parallel to, the corporate brand.
But here's what I'm thinking. Human beings are not brands. They are not focused and clear. They are not consistent. They don't stand for the same things in the hearts and minds of their friends. I have days when I am angry. I have days when I am funny. My interests cover everything from architecture and anthropology to Youtube, gay rights, fine art and Tibetan meditation.
It is great that brands are becoming more human. But I'm quite set against humans coming to join them in the middle ground. Madonna may want to build her brand. But I think there couldn't be anything sadder than a person with only one proposition, one clearly articulated message. If you stand for something, you haven't thought enough about anything. Being open to experience and open to life means constant, directionless change - the antithesis of strong branding.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Jozi Pride

Drunk black drag queen at the carnival by Matthieu ::
it's Jozi Pride tomorrow. When I remembered this I couldn't help having a wistful distance-staring moment as I mentally relived my camp teenage years on floats and in clubs. I was so bloody political about it back then. Dragging boys to my matric dance because it was 'my right', planning my Pride outfits weeks in advance. Now I just think the whole thing is quite funny - I mean, what the hell is the point of Pride?

Sure, it's important for people to feel they can be themselves - any psychologist will tell you that. Hell, any person who isn't psychopathic would tell you that. But what cracks me up is how the whole thing is dressed up us some sort of important political display of solidarity, as if it has gravitas. And meaning. It's so deliciously self-righteous. I won't even go into the argument about how marches like that do more to hinder gay rights than to help them - reinforcing all the stereotypes they proclaim to denounce - because that is far too heavy a discussion for a parade which is essentially a party. Yes, the overwhelming majority of gay men don't wear feather boas. Or even Gucci. But if those who do want to have a big camp street party, then fan-bloody-tastic. Roll out the drag queens and the Kylie soundtracks. But don't pretend it's saving anyone! Don't pretend it's liberating the poor confused teenager with uber-religious parents and an unforgiving circle of friends. Or even better, as the Pride parades around the world now like to position themselves: that they are defendants of the oppressed and persecuted LGBT communities in tyrannical countries. I find it a little difficult to see how glitter falling from a sweaty pec could persuade an Imam or a Republican to think "hey, these guys aren't so bad. I've always secretly just wanted to wear glitter and get shirtless too. Maybe we should all just get along."
To take yourself seriously or not to take yourself seriously. That seems to be the question which Pride is failing to answer. If the parades are having an identity crisis in post-liberation South Africa, where sexual orientation - and even gender - is becoming increasingly irrelevant, then why not go the MCQP route and be proud to be wild, epic, mixed and carnal parties? And leave human rights issues to the people who can make a difference.

But that being said, anyone who's going tomorrow - happy heeling!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Keeping both hands warm

Ha! I love it! What a bizarre way to go green! Hopefully there will be more and more of these types of initiatives popping up after yesterday's talk about not waiting for governments to save us. Although much as I tried to convince myself that it's not only good for minimising waste, but for rocking some recessionista couture too, I just can't. The combinations are hideous. Saving the little hand-knitted glove with reindeer prints (as only the Brits can do so well - I give you Mark Darcy's jersery in Bridget Jones) for pairing with an even uglier felt number in a clashing colour is really pushing the environmental movement back into the smelly hippy corner from whence it came! Perhaps Topshop or H&M will come to the rescue.

In the meantime, I'm happy to live in a climate where the only way this would work would be to pair unmatched flip-flops. And I have a small mountain of those to offer up...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Doing it for ourselves

I went to a talk tonight on Active Citizenship by Dr Mamphela Ramphele, at Kirstenbosch. It was for the launch of an interesting-looking book on how ordinary South Africans can make a difference. Some of the other speakers were a little arb - I had to do a lot of blackberry facebooking during a particularly long-winded anecdote about the National Union of Mineworkers' labour dispute with another union. But generally the idea was a good one: getting us off our arses, and transforming us from a nation of whingers to a nation of empowered citizens who uplift their own communities. She pointed out that we don't have any more baggage, for example, than Mozambicans, and yet they have made the decision to work towards a better future rather than moan about the past.

Two things stood out for me in what she said:

Firstly, we don't move on from our past because our post-apartheid amelioration system incentivises victimhood as a golden ticket for a free lunch.

Secondly, the vocabulary of 'delivery' has demobilised South Africans. We no longer do anything for ourselves because we expect houses to be 'delivered', jobs to be 'delivered'. It is absurd to expect the government to provide everything.

Where is our pride? Amandla awethu, my brothers and sisters :)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

# rant

Can ol Helen Zille, the city government and SA companies please come to the table? When are we going to get cycle routes in this city? I can't believe with all the new roads being built for 2010, the city is showing absolutely no signs of engaging with how people actually want to travel in the 21st Century! How can you be clean when all you plan for are buses and taxis and trains? Where is our national cycle scheme, with it's financial incentives to use bicycles? Where are our safe, motor-free cycle lanes and pedestrian paths? Why don't green companies like Nedbank or Woolworths put their money where their mouth is and develop solar-powered trams? Cape Town needs to wake up.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Buddha with the Fairtrade logo

Can ethical consumerism save the world? So many people would like to think so - in fact, the whole purpose of ethical consumerism is to save the world, one checkout scan at a time. People with a conscience are switching to brands which help uplift the communities they come from. They are buying products which have a lower carbon footprint than the competitors, or products that go easy on packaging. All of these things surely make a difference. But when the change that is needed is structural, is it really possible to change the system from within? If capitalism is destroying the planet, can a tweaked capitalist purchasing pattern also save it?

Environmentalists are quick to point out that the Earth is finite. It has finite resources, finite energy, a finite amount of space and a finite capacity to absorb pollution without ecosystem collapse. Capitalism, on the other hand, centres around the assumption of the infinite. Infinite growth. You don't need a masters degree in economics to notice that every single graph you ever see goes up as it goes from left to right. More production. More consumption. More technology. More money. More, more, more. If the graph goes the other way, or even levels out, the system is in crisis. It is termed a 'recession', 'stagnation' or, if it goes on long enough, a 'depression'. These terms fill people with almost as much horror as the prospect of environmental catastrophe because they bring about their own, very tangible catastrophes: unemployment and rising costs.

So is the choice we are faced with a stark one: environmental collapse or economic collapse?

As I see it, we have two choices. We can change what we buy and we can change how much we buy. Ideally, of course, we would buy less of everything and that which we bought would be ethically sourced/made. However, herein lies the great shortfall of truly ethical consuming in our current economic system. It only incentivises the production of 'green' products if people buy more of them, not less. If you simultaneously consume less and consume green, your voice in the mix decreases. Every purchase in a market economy sends a signal to produce more of that product, and the great dream of ethical consumerism is to collectively switch production from unethical products to ethical products. That will work - the types of products produced will change as people do this. But it does not depart from the model of more buying, more spending, more ridiculous infinity.

Why do I mention the Buddha in the title? Simply because, as in most cases, the answer was there long before the question. The Buddha's greatest insight was that attachment leads to suffering. That simple truism is the cornerstone of Buddhism. Attachment will unfailingly lead to suffering because everything is transient and so becoming attached to it will cause pain when it disappears or fades. It is for that reason that monks renounce their worldly possessions. And for that reason that shopping sprees are only so temporarily satisfying.

We can only save the planet by consuming less. And, serendipitously, that may well make us happier. If carried through universally it will indeed shake the very foundations of capitalism. It will bring about 'recession', 'stagnation' and unemployment. But are we so brainwashed to think there is no other paradigm? If we are not so attached to things, will it really matter if there are not more and more of them every year? Perhaps a new system will emerge where how much you produce is no longer the point: but what, how and why you produce. Besides, there is more than enough food to go round on this planet of ours. And one man's unemployment is another man's holiday.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Starry night heads south

Part of the Vega night class man's mission to make us more creative involves us reading as far and wide and opening our frame of reference as much as possible (and then making new links between the expanded mental library). We've looked at great composers, physicists, The Office and Darwin. Picasso, it turns out, copied every known Western artistic style before he embarked on his own. So here's the start of my journey - a Van Gogh inspired Cape Town. What do you think?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A tale of two cities

South Africans love to bark on about how pretensious Capetonians are. And yet, when you're here, the disdain is pointed Jozi-way. "Ah, I don't like that club, it's too Jozi." Meaning, roughly, that the patrons are too flashy, too materialistic, too groomed. Ha! Perhaps my Jo'burg roots are just asserting their ego, but isn't it better to be open about the fact that you're making an effort with how you look? The Capetonian look is just as crafted, just as intentional and just as expensive as its highveld cousin. The fact that it's slightly less neat and fastidious doesn't make it any less label-conscious and materialistic - it just adds a pouty heap of deluded transcendence. Someone who was genuinely not fussed about the way he looks, and more interested in the mountains and the sea (as Capetonians claim) wouldn't fit the look at all.

So, for once, it seems the rest of the country is right. Jozi might be the home of flashy and bling, but true pretensiousness has found its place at the foot of the mountain.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Is anyone listening?

Participation is the buzzword of all marketers these days. Social media has revolutionised the way people communicate - from being talked at, to having conversations with. PR is no longer one way, and it's no longer controlled. Anyone can bitch about a bad experience they had with your brand online, and anyone can recommend it. Newspapers are dying because people no longer trust the motives of large corporations with controlled and edited content but would rather read the opinions of their peers, their friends and themselves.
But perhaps newspapers are dying not because of some grand or noble democratisation of the publishing model, but because technology has enabled us to be more self-involved than ever. There are hundreds of new bloggers every day, but are there hundreds of new readers? In our quest for the Warholian fifteen minutes of fame we rant and pontificate and lose ourselves in endless and self-important navel-gazing. We seek only to be heard and not to hear. The conversation is just as one-way as it's ever been: the direction has simply reversed.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Evolution of Symbols

Allegedly the birth of human consciousness corresponds roughly to our ability to use symbols and metaphors. The oldest art in the world, which, let's blow our trumpet a little, was found in a cave in South Africa, signifies our move from unconscious or subconscious animals to thinking beings. Abstract thought was documented and reified in abstract symbolism. This evolved into cave paintings of animals, alphabets and religious symbols. 
A strange thought struck me today as I picked up a chocolate with so many symbols, adjectives and brand differentiators on it the chocolate seemed almost peripheral to the offering - perhaps the shift in human consciousness that so many predict is upon us (Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, for example) is being mirrored in the evolution of symbols yet again. Where once letters and alphabets arose to document sounds and words, now symbols that represent entire systems of thought combine to form a language of a higher level. A crucifix carries with it the whole history of Christianity. A swastika invokes an ideology and an emotional reaction. Fairtrade logos and carbon footprint logos and halaal-approved logos each invoke a complex history and philosophy. Where letters once combined to form simple words, now the combinations of brands, logos and symbols form complex patterns and combinations of ideologies, histories and value. To cut through the information overload of our age, we are beginning to communicate in a symbolic language of a higher order. It may mean the birth of collective consciousness and the beginning of the prophesised golden age - and it also means we won't need to worry so much about our spelling.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Holding on to mystery

We all love a bit of mystery. Half the reason people date is because of the allure of the uknown. We create elaborate fantasies of what the other person is like; we wallow in their mixed signals and unfamiliar language like excited hippos in the mud. Science fiction and fantasy (and, some might say, religion) have all grown up because of our inherent desire to make the world more interesting, more fantastical, and to attribute to it some hidden depth, meaning and inexplicability. Mystery is a fine art. It captures our imagination and fills our hearts with possibility and hope.

And yet, it's a resource that is dwindling faster than fossil fuels or untouched forest. No one can be bothered with mystery any more. I'm all for honesty - but the levels of openness and candour that we've reached today haven't furthered the cause of honesty; they've merely stripped the world of any magic. Perhaps it's profoundly untrusting of me to think that without mystery the world loses any interest - it's all prosaic and mundane and straightforward. If what you see is what you get, then why bother looking? 

Despite the onslaught of digital media which make it unfashionable not to let everyone know exactly what you're thinking at any given moment (says the blogger), I think we should hold out and hold back. There are no longer undiscovered places on this planet for us to imagine the hell out of. But we still have silent smiles, hidden histories and complex motives. I know that, despite my propensity to be a hysterical groupie, I'm obsessing much more about the mysterious onesmallseed motorbike in my garage than I did when I met Matt Damon. The bike is alive with celebrity possibility: once I know for sure whose it is, it will just be means of transportation.

But then, maybe I should just get a life