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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Lost in Translation: All in a Day’s Work

Oscar Foulkes December 5, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
It’s important to be able to laugh during a workday. It’s less likely – if not outright undesirable – during a complex procedure requiring intense concentration. But, at some point in the day, it can be a big stress release to crack a smile, if not descend into an uncontrollable fit of screeching laughter.

One of my favourites, about 20 years ago, occurred when my uber-efficient assistant, Barbara, had written an order requiring a delivery to The Happy Rocking Gardens. Everyone was very confused, because no-one had any knowledge of such an establishment.

Eventually the penny dropped – in the Cape Town suburb, Gardens, there was a restaurant called The Happy Wok.

“This is the Happy Wok in Gardens, please could I place an order?” I can see how the mistake was made. We laughed about it for months afterwards.

So, yesterday I was checking on the baking and delivery of some macaroons for a client by the name of Faeeza. It is also relevant to the story that she works at Kenilworth racecourse, where we operate the Paddock Room (delivery was supposed to go to her office).

My first stop at Dish was in the pastry kitchen, where the pastry chef told me that they had been baked and were in the freezer. Nothing unusual here – macaroons are often baked in advance and frozen.

A bit later I went to the operations manager to check on the delivery. “Yes, no problem”, she said, “the driver is putting them into the freezer at Paddock Room”.

It was at this point that the freezer was featuring too prominently in the story. This was a hint, if not a big red flag, that everything was perhaps not going according to plan. Oh, and while Paddock Room is at Kenilworth racecourse, it’s not quite the same as delivering to Faeeza in person.

Notwithstanding the fact that the order – including client name and delivery address – appeared in black and white on an order sheet, the ‘broken telephone’ was to blame. Clearly, ‘Faeeza’ is phonetically just too close to ‘freezer’!

Fixing the mistake involved an extra trip, as well as someone’s time, but the stress-release of the uncontrolled laughter was worth it.

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Betting on Teenagers

Oscar Foulkes August 2, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Gerry McIlroy, father of the 2014 Open Championship winner, Rory, is looking like a smart bettor. Ten years ago, when his son was just 15, he took a bet that Rory would win the Open before he turned 26.

At 500-1, the odds look generous, but were they really?

Rory was already a prodigy on the golf course, so much so that Gerry worked two jobs to fund his son’s amateur golfing. Barring injury, it was very likely that he would get at least one start in the Open. Let’s say that the odds of him competing at least once would have been around 5-1, perhaps shorter.

An outsider in the Open would be priced at something like 200-1. At the age of 15, he could therefore have been priced at 1000-1 for an Open victory before his 26th birthday (the two odds multiplied). On this basis, Ladbrokes’ 500-1 isn’t exactly generous.

On the other hand, if you take the view that if he’s good enough to get to the Open he’ll do it by the time he’s 20 (top golfers tend to be quite precocious these days). And, if he’s good enough to compete once he’ll manage a few attempts. In that case, the 1000-1 would need to be divided by the number of times he starts. By this reasoning 500-1 looks generous.

Rory played his first Open at the age of 18, which put Gerry on the right side of the value assessment.

Reports indicate that it is not unusual for bookmakers to get approached for similar bets. Amongst others, Ladbrokes laid bets – when Lewis Hamilton was just nine – that he would win an F1 race or would win the F1 championship.

When these bets pay out, the sums are generally large. In order for bookmakers to remain solvent, they need a steady stream of optimistic parents hoping to turn a couple of hundred into hundreds of thousands.

The publicity around Gerry McIlroy’s payday has a monetary value to Ladbrokes far greater than the payout. If nothing else, it will lure hopeful parents into similar bets.

Speaking as a parent, the money is a sideshow. I get emotional just watching my kids at school prize giving ceremonies. Ladbrokes would have been the last thing on his mind when Gerry saw Rory hoist the Claret Jug!

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“You Learn to Make Do”

Oscar Foulkes July 15, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Sometimes things seem so ‘big’ that anything written about them will just seem trite. For example, does the world need another person to declare the power of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics? I thought not.

Perhaps one day I’ll get around to a popular theme, which plays a key part in his songs Reason to Believe and The Promised Land. This is all about the little things that give us hope – the occasionally irrational belief that tomorrow will be better than today.

His references to blue-collar workers are dotted throughout his songs, for example, this line from The River: “for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”. You can see the need for hope of a better life!

During his concert in Cape Town in January 2014, which was a three- or four-hour immersion in a wide selection of his music, I heard Jack of All Trades for the first time.

I’ve never earned money by mowing lawns, mending roofs or cleaning gutters, as he sings in the song. But I know all about the circumstances – and emotions – of a man saying to his anxious wife “honey we’ll be all right”. There may not be any tangible reason to give him that belief, yet regardless of his own insecurity, the situation demands that strength of him.

The line that links everybody, I think, is this one: “So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do.”

Powerful stuff, whether you carry a union card at the age of 19, or your kids attend private schools.

(I couldn’t find an ‘official’ concert video, but this one gives a pretty good introduction.)

Thrust into the Social Media Limelight

Oscar Foulkes July 13, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
We’ve all been in situations where someone hauls out a camera, brings the impending snap to everyone’s attention, calls out “Cheese!” and then presses the button.

When this happened to me a few years ago in China, I thought I’d heard wrong, because the word sounded very similar to cheese. The word they used was “qie zi”, Mandarin for aubergine. What is it with food-related words and social snaps?

It all used to be relatively innocuous. The relatively recent shift from film to digital meant that people were less frugal about how many pics were snapped, and the results could be reviewed (or perhaps even deleted) instantly.

These days, the pics can be on multiple social media in seconds. So far, so good, assuming you’re in agreement that your drunken grin should be all over Facebook or Instagram.

My generation is ‘social media optional’. Large numbers of us are on social media, but many – for a variety of reasons – decided not to sign up. I’m thinking particularly of one couple that shows up quite regularly in my Facebook newsfeed. They aren’t tagged, of course, but there they are, cheerily holding wine glasses aloft as members of a celebratory group.

For the amount of screen time they get, they may as well have their own Facebook accounts.

These are people who chose to not sign up for Facebook accounts. Is it bad form to publish pictures in which non-Facebookers appear, without asking their permission?

Similarly, I have a friend who is on Facebook, but for professional reasons does not post – or appear in – any photos on the site.

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The Meal That Kept On Giving

Oscar Foulkes July 9, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
A couple of years ago I posted a little piece about recycling leftovers, entitled Warm-Ups. I thought of this again last week, when we had a meal that just kept on giving.

It started with chickens that I liberally dressed with herbs, and then roasted on a bed of chopped leeks and carrots. When it came to service, the leeks and carrots were whizzed with some chicken stock to duty as a gloopy sauce. By way of greens we had sautéed courgettes and beans. I believe we also baked some sweet potatoes that we grew at home.

The chicken bones were reserved for making stock, which happened the following morning.

Far from being a culinary afterthought, the meal that appeared two nights later was so enjoyable that it deserves its own title: Roast chicken and caramelised leek & carrot risotto.

I started by chopping an onion, which was the only bit of traditional ‘prep’ that was done. I fried this, and then added the Arborio rice for a brief fry. From the fridge I grabbed a glass of rosé (for the pot). When the alcohol had evaporated I added chicken stock, followed by the remains of the leek and carrot ‘sauce’.

While this was in progress I roughly chopped some roast chicken leftovers, as well as the remains of the sautéed greens. When the rice was just about ready I added the chicken and veg to the pot to warm through.

I should mention that we ate this by the fire, while rain deluged and wind galed.

Delicious!

(Even if I say so myself)

This is how Chef Tiziano Muccitelli rocks a risotto with zucchini/courgettes (image source: 500px)

 

The Road to Tankwa

Oscar Foulkes May 4, 2014 Tags: , , , Festivals No comments
The vehicle stranded by the side of the road was not on its way back from the Burn. For starters, it wasn’t packed to capacity with camping oddments. Secondly, the middle-aged men were dressed for a day at the office. They had a spare wheel, and a jack, but no means of cranking it, hence the reason for them flagging me down.

While the wheel was being changed we made small talk about what each of us was doing on this isolated road. In my best Afrikaans I told them I’d been to a festival, called AfrikaBurn. The lack of comprehension in their eyes told me to stop right there.

Telling them about the Dr Seuss-like scenes would not have helped them anchor the event. I couldn’t possibly have told them about people spending months building huge artworks that would then be burnt as spectacularly as possible. How could they understand adults taking part in fantasy dress-up (or un-dress) for purposes other than a themed 50th birthday party?

Perhaps I could have told them about a litter-free festival area populated for a week by a reported 10 000 people. Or the random acts of giving. Or the total absence of judgement (and its closely related cousin, complete acceptance). I’m sure the scale of community effort would have impressed them.

I don’t have the definitive definition of what AfrikaBurn is, or isn’t. Apart from the fact that I’ve been once only, it’s an experience that will be different for every person who attends. All I know is that the first hour of our drive home was undertaken in complete silence. None of us was ready to head back to ‘real life’, nor did we want to listen to ‘commercial’ music. In time, I’m sure I’ll have a better understanding, but for now I’ll stick to describing my four days of AfrikaBurn as profound.

The noun ‘congregation’ is linked to the verb ‘congregate’, the action of people coming together in some kind of common purpose. I’m not going to suggest that worship or religion form any part of the festival, but I feel as if I have been affected on a deep – dare I say, spiritual – level.

Most of my professional life has been spent trying to get people to buy more of something, to add the marketing sauce that makes products more enticing. By contrast, AfrikaBurn is completely non-commercial: ice is all you can buy there. No branding of any sort is permitted. People ‘gift’ things, whether it’s a fully-fledged theme camp (complete with DJs), or endless cappuccinos, or bicycle repair, or perhaps just a few biscuits.

The thing is this, what makes AfrikaBurn (as several dotted-around signs reminded us) is the people who attend. The festival is a giant exercise in ridiculousness – its remoteness, the “tyre-munching” gravel road, the lack of any

communications contact with the outside world, the extreme aridity of the landscape, the burning of artworks, I could go on. In the way we dress ourselves, or decorate our campsites, we are gifting ridiculousness. In the process we allow the suspension of judgement, which is a good place to visit.

On a superficial level, judgement can be taken to refer to outward appearance, or lifestyle choices. But it can also relate to more fundamental elements of how society functions. Like, should it be the norm that rubbish bins are provided in public spaces, especially when many people don’t use them anyway?

My journey through AfrikaBurn was probably also coloured by the fact that I took my daughter, who was partying with her friends, so I was alone every night. I may have been surrounded by 10 000 people, but I have seldom felt as lonely as I did, moving from one ‘party area’ to the next. I would happily have made a speech in front of those thousands of people, yet I was incapable of engaging or somehow connecting with individual strangers (all of whom were in their own groups). I was desperate for intimacy; perhaps that was just a rawness caused by me being in this zone of suspended reality. Whatever the cause, it was one of the features that contributed to what for me were the powerful emotional effects of being at AfrikaBurn.

One of the big themes of the organisers’ communication is for participants/attendees to get involved, to participate. There is a practical element to this, because the festival can’t function without volunteers. But the real reason is that in order to get the most out of the experience one needs to have skin in the game (yes, some people take the ‘skin’ part literally). Getting invested may involve no more than dressing for the occasion, even if people’s interpretation of “radical self-expression” varies.

You should read AfrikaBurn’s Guiding Principles. They may be basic, old-fashioned common sense, but it’s hard to argue that the world would not be a better place if more people adopted them.

If I had told the gents by the side of the road more about AfrikaBurn they may have had thoughts that involved their version of the pejorative “crank”, denoting some kind of delusional madness. A crank – in the form of a bent shaft that imparts circular motion – is what they needed to get out of a pickle.

In the early days of motoring, car engines were started by means of a crank. Perhaps the world needs more cranks, of every description.

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All images copyright Oscar Foulkes

Let your ‘Social’ Sprout

Oscar Foulkes April 8, 2014 Tags: , , , Uncategorized No comments
I find it interesting that the best tools for using Twitter were developed by other companies. In a way, it makes sense that the job of growing a platform is different to the specialist functions of scheduling messages, paying attention to relevant conversations and tracking all the data that results from these billions of digital footprints.

I’ve used the free version of HootSuite for a few years, largely because the iOS app enables me to manage multiple accounts, as well as posting to linked Facebook profiles. The paid version, at less than $10 per month, enables all that for a larger number of accounts, as well as one free report per month. You can’t argue with the value for money of the free version, but the entry level paid version offers a lot of functionality for the money.

I’m busy with a trial of SproutSocial, which takes all that to another level. For starters, the desktop version is visually much more exciting space than the HootSuite equivalent. Not only is it more attractive, but it’s also been designed in such a way that the advanced features are made intuitively easy.

For starters, the reports display on the dashboard, right off the bat (unlike in HootSuite, where you have to request a report that gets mailed). The reports deliver a load of relevant data. If you do get around to doing a price comparison with the apparently more expensive SproutSocial, bear in mind that HootSuite bills for additional reports, whereas they are basically on-tap in SproutSocial.

I’m particularly impressed with SproutSocial’s CRM features. These keep track of your conversation history with particular contacts, and are also specially designed for teams. So, when someone tweets your company, you can assign that to a team member. Those responses also go into the history. Given the extent to which consumers by-pass conventional customer help channels, keeping track of Twitter conversations is an absolute must.

SproutSocial can be linked to your Feedly account (or any other RSS), which enables you to find relevant content that you then schedule into your Twitter stream.

You can link your Facebook pages to SproutSocial, so that your social media management becomes a one-stop shop.

There is also a very useful ‘Discovery’ function that enables quite sophisticated Boolean searches of Twitter and non-private Facebook posts. What this does is to throw up conversations that you may want to get involved in. Or, perhaps just give you an insight into consumer sentiment around various issues.

You can also set up your social media stream to include mentions of whatever brand keywords you specify. Remember, ‘social’ is a conversation – you need to be listening, too!

Much of this functionality is mirrored in the iOS app.

Yes, social media is ‘free’, but its impact on your business is potentially huge. If you are serious about using social media then the relatively small monthly expense of the tools that enable you to be more effective is money well spent. Social media is now too important a business function for you to be messing around with ‘amateur’ tools.

There is a potentially powerful platform emerging at StreamScience.co (currently in beta). It has great tools for managing content, to a wider variety of social media than just Twitter and Facebook. It has scheduling, as well as team functionality and a bulk upload facility. Its scheduler tracks engagement to optimise the times of day that messages are sent out. One shortcoming is that it doesn’t deliver your message stream. Looking good thus far.

(Disclosure: While I use paid versions of HootSuite and SproutSocial myself, which is the basis for this endorsement, I need to tell you that purchases that follow from clicking in the links above earn me a small referral fee.)

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The SproutSocial Twitter feed

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The SproutSocial reports dashboard

 

Crowd-Sourcing Lecture Notes

Oscar Foulkes March 17, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Twitter sometimes gets accused of being nothing more than gossip. I think chatter is a fairer descriptive, but that line of thinking obscures the huge value that does get delivered by the service.

SXSW introduced me to two great practical applications for Twitter. Firstly, it enabled the posing of questions from the audience, no matter how large. It was a brilliantly efficient way of doing it, especially because it forced the question posers to get to the point. And we didn’t have to wait for them to stand and waffle their way through the question. A major benefit to the organisers is that they could choose the best questions.

The second benefit was crowd-sourced notes during workshops (all presentations, actually). Every session had a designated hash tag. Instead of writing down notes (or, in addition to notes), participants tweeted key points with the hash tag.

During one workshop I was sitting next to someone who was typing up notes on her MacBook Air. She was simultaneously following the Twitter feed for the hash tag, so that she could copy across important points she may not have picked up on first time round. People were also using their smartphones to photograph the presentation slides, which were also tweeted.

But then this was SXSW Interactive. What else would you expect?

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Indie Science

Oscar Foulkes March 11, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
I feel very privileged to have been able to attend Adam Savage’s SXSW keynote address – The Maker Age: Enlightened Views On Science & Art.

Far from being a formally qualified scientist, he describes himself as a “serial dilettante”. He is on a mission to make science more accessible. Actually, it’s more about the scientific method – ask a question, make a hypothesis, test it – than it is about atoms or equations. It’s about a way of thinking.

Up front, he made the assertion that art and science are not opposites. Not only are they necessary companions, they are twin story telling channels.

To rapturous applause he expressed the wish that schools would one day have as many science fairs as they have sports matches. He didn’t let sport off the hook, though, because there is a pile of science in sport that ‘jocks’ appear to be quite happy to process.

He used the example of Berkeley parking metres that ran out of time before they were supposed to. It was a widely known problem, but the city was not willing to spend the quoted hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultants to check it out. So, 11-year-old Ellie Lammer went out with

a stopwatch and a pocketful of nickels to check it out as her science fair project. Her findings inspired a piece of legislation that became known as Lammer’s Law.

This element tied in with a panel discussion that I went to a couple of days before: The Indie Science Revolution. One of the panellists, Jacob Shiach, made the point that one does not need to be doing ‘big science’. There are millions of curious people around the world testing things all the time.

Savage also spoke about failure, which he sees as being a key requirement for science. Essentially, pushing things beyond limits causes them to fail, which enables one to work out what those limits are. Failure as a route to learning had also been a theme of a presentation on the power of failure I had been to earlier in the day.

The Indie Science Revolution panellists made the point that scientific research has been government funded for a very small part of the thousands of years that humans have been asking questions.

I came to SXSW to be stimulated and inspired. Thank you, Adam Savage, for doing just that!

Google is Evil

Oscar Foulkes January 29, 2014 Digital No comments
I’m struggling to come to terms with Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto, following a recent experience at the hands of AdWords.

I received an mail from Google offering me a R600 AdWords voucher, so I updated my card details and started a campaign. After a few days I paused it, with the thought that I needed to change the wording of the campaign.

Out of the blue I received an email advising me that the account had been suspended, without any explanation. I then contacted AdWords help. Unlike the rest of Google, there is the facility to do an online chat with a representative (amazing what companies will do when there is money involved!). Usually, Google’s sole method of getting support is for people to fight their way through voluminous FAQs.

The person I chatted to was unable to assist, but offered to escalate the matter. Before long, I received a mail with the following content:

Our specialists have re-reviewed the account and confirmed that it is in violation of our AdWords policies. Since this decision is final, the account will not be reinstated. Please avoid creating additional AdWords accounts, as they will be subjected to the same suspension.

Our support team will not be able to able to give you any more specifics on the suspension.

No mention of which policies I was allegedly violating, or how I was doing it, nothing. All I did was give them my credit card details, and set up a campaign in good faith.

Surely transparency is the first step to not being evil?

I happen to believe that Google’s cloud-based services are an amazing resource. As a business, Google is at the cutting edge of the internet. Yes, they have failures, but from a cloud perspective they are way ahead of the likes of Microsoft (in my opinion, of course).

But now I’m gun shy. Imagine if I move my entire business onto the Google suite (Drive, Apps etc), and they unilaterally decide that I have violated an unknown policy in an unknown manner. If they closed my account that would be disastrous. Knowing them they way I do now, they would probably prevent any further access to stored data.

I know it’s a stretch to imagine them doing that, but they have undermined my trust.

Google, there are many things I admire about you, but you are evil.

UPDATE: In the original email there is a link I’m invited to follow if I want to understand AdWord suspension policies:
(https://support.google.com/adwords/topic/28449?guide=28446&hl=en-GB), but the page does not exist.
This content
(https://support.google.com/adwords/answer/2375414?hl=en-GB) suggests that I would/should be given the reasons for the suspension, as well as the opportunity of fixing the ‘violations’.

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