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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.



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.


(Even if I say so myself)

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


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 (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?


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!


Oscar Foulkes January 15, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
One of the recurring themes in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is that we have asymmetric responses to losses and gains, especially when there are miniscule probabilities involved.

We are so keen to avert losses that we’ll overpay for insurance, and dread events that are possible – but barely probable – loom larger than they should.

He uses the fabulous example of how a bowl of gorgeous cherries is made completely undesirable by the presence of one cockroach in the bowl. Correspondingly, a bowl of cockroaches isn’t made any less repugnant by the presence of one cherry.

We expend a lot more energy on the things that cause anxiety or fear, than we do on feelings of pleasure.

I ask you: what symbolises pleasure and deliciousness better than a ripe cherry, plump with sweet juice?

I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions, but please do not be surprised if I spontaneously shout “Cherries!” or drop the word into a social media update. It’s my little way of remembering to put gains (and happiness) first.

Try it (preferably with a big grin) … Cherries!


Discovering Music

Oscar Foulkes December 13, 2013 Uncategorized No comments
My working life involves helping my clients operate effectively in a digital environment. So, their sales plans include ecommerce, their marketing involves websites and social media, and I help them makes sales pitches on email. It’s a shift I have embraced myself, by reading books and magazines on iPad, downloading music from iTunes and keeping in touch with people on social media.

Almost from left field, my 13-year-old son has leapt into the world of vinyl records. He used a collection of saved up gift vouchers, with a little assistance from his parents, and bought a turntable. He hooked this up to an old Nad amplifier that we had in storage in the garage (the poor thing was ditched in favour of a docking station!), and he now listens to music while parked on the couch, instead of being shut up in his bedroom.

Listening to music is not new behaviour for him. The difference is that everyone in the house can hear this music (i.e. there are no earphones involved), which turns it into something social. Yesterday, he came home with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which I first heard when I was about his age. In the intervening years, I’ve heard parts of the album several times, with the schoolboy chant “We don’t need no education” featuring most often. There was magic to that moment, as the tracks followed sequentially, rather than in some shuffled format.

His growing collection includes Hendrix, The Stones, The Beatles (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, no less), and Queen, with The Doors waiting in the wings. The sources of these treasures are stores such as Mabu Vinyl, which featured in Searching for Sugarman. These establishments are staffed by passionate people, who take the time to chat to their customers (even if the customer is a 13-year-old newbie).

‘Sugar’ (of Mabu) was intrigued by what inspired his interest in this music. I believe the response went something along the lines of it being played at home. I wouldn’t say ‘old’ music gets played that often, but when you have an older sister who is as likely to listen to The Kinks as Rihanna, these things can happen.

My own musical preferences certainly include Rock, with what I would call Indie as a sub-set. However, I’ve noticed that iTunes refers to this as Alternative, which I wouldn’t regard as being that helpful a descriptor.

Digital – whether it’s music, ebooks, the Internet, online shopping, mobile apps, or cloud storage – offers many benefits. However, that doesn’t mean that digital is always better than analog. In fact, there is something about analog music that not only supports a voyage of discovery, but is also refreshing to come back to. In many respects, this musical world is better.

It would be a sad day if the might and convenience of the likes of iTunes and Amazon drove small music or book shops out of business.

This year also happens to be the first (perhaps only) that he is buying Christmas gifts for a small group of friends. These gifts all happen to be vinyl records, which means that in houses all around Cape Town, parents are being pressured to dust off old turntables.

Far from being an ironic hipster move, this adoption of retro is being done with massive amounts of enthusiasm. I love it!


Great Afrikaans Words

Oscar Foulkes November 8, 2013 Uncategorized 3 comments
I have been nagging my kids to learn a programming language. Whether it’s HTML, Javascript, Ruby or PHP, I really don’t care. I’ve even gone so far as to offer monetary rewards for completing Codecademy modules.

I’m not suggesting they become programmers – although they’d possibly earn more money spewing code than waiting tables – I just believe having a better understanding of the guts of the digital tools they’ll be using for the rest of their lives will empower them.

It’s a little like the languages we humans use to communicate with each other. Being able to communicate in additional languages is always an asset. Yes, English may be the world’s business language, but there are many places where it is not spoken, or used with great insecurity.

They are obliged to learn Afrikaans at school, which is not a language that is in universal use even in South Africa. I grew up speaking it (as second language). I’m not sure that the superficial experience of a school language will enable them to feel the descriptive power of Afrikaans.

My wife has never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Afrikaners never let the absence of words get in the way of a good story; in fact, where necessary they’ll make them up.

It’s a language that may have been based upon Dutch, but it has a tradition of borrowing words, and just generally improvising for the sake of conveying meaning.

This morning I watched a little rugby video from the 70s, in which Springbok Joggie Jansen floors All Black Wayne Cottrill so comprehensively that the Kiwi did not move for several minutes. The Afrikaans commentator used the word “plettervat” to describe the tackle. For someone who understands the language, it is one word that does the job of a whole paragraph.

“Verpletter” means that something has been completely crushed or destroyed. The word “vat” means grab or hold, and is often conjugated:
laagvat – tackle low
vasvat – grab tight
So, “plettervat” denotes a tackle from which there is no coming back. Indeed, Cottrill may still be hurting from Jansen’s hit.

I need to start keeping a list of similarly descriptive words. Here are a few to get you going (please feel free to add more, via the comments section below):
Drinkstompie – the piece of wood (stompie) that gets added to a fire to extend the evening, or to delay the start of the braai
Spookasem – candy floss, directly translated as ghost breath
Abbawa – the trailer that is used to transport cars (i.e. a pantechnicon), literally carry (abba) wagon (wa). My sense is that ‘abba’ is a word that entered Afrikaans via Malay slaves, but googling ‘abba’ is not likely to be a rewarding exercise!
Loskop – absent-minded, but in a particularly descriptive manner. Directly translated as ‘loose head’.
Kitsbank – ATM (kits is the Afrikaans word for instant, as in instant coffee)
Vleisbom – Paratrooper (vleis is the Afrikaans word for meat, and bom is a bomb … so a soldier who jumps out of a plane is a ‘meat bomb’. Can’t get much more descriptive than that!)
Tuinslang – Garden hose (tuin is Afrikaans for garden, and slang is a snake … so a hose is a ‘garden snake’)
Verkleurmannetjie – Chameleon (verkleur references a change in colour, and mannetjie is a chap/fellow/character … so a chameleon is a chap who changes colour)

Over the past 24 hours I’ve had bit of a frustrating time with an Afrikaans client, who kept rejecting the English wine back label copy I wrote for her, on the basis that it was “missing beautiful descriptive words and a poetic flow of the words”. I’m not sure English has many words that pack as much meaning as Afrikaans does. So, with that background it’s no surprise that she wasn’t getting turned on by the words I’d crafted. Anyway, I went to my cliché cupboard and we seem to be making progress.

One of the features of modern programming languages is the way they build on previous languages, so that a simple reference calls a bunch of complex functionality. C led to C++, which in turn gave rise to Java, from which we get Groovy and Grails.

I can’t help thinking that Afrikaans is a little like one of the modern programming languages, in which one word does the work of many. Perhaps I should just trash the idea of Codecademy and get my kids to listen to a few Jan Spies or Gerhard Viviers recordings instead.

Uber hits South Africa

Oscar Foulkes August 29, 2013 Uncategorized No comments
It seems hard to believe that the word ‘uber’ has never been pressed into service as a brand name. Even less believable then, that it has now made an appearance in the world of websites and apps, where odd spelling and made-up words are de rigeur.

I read about Uber a few weeks ago, when Google Ventures had just invested $258 million in the company.

My assumption was that it would be years before they hit South Africa, but I discovered this morning that they’re already testing the service here. I immediately downloaded the app and signed up.

OK, so my comments are from someone who hasn’t yet used the service (i.e. who hasn’t waited in the rain for an hour because of a snafu). Based purely on the super-clear and easy-to-use app (not to mention the gorgeously beautiful home page on their website), I am seriously impressed.

The app makes use of the phone’s location-based functions to indicate my current position, and displays how long I’d have to wait to be picked up. I love this feature, because it saves me phoning three taxi companies to find out which one can get here in 25 instead of 45 minutes.

Billing is done to the credit card that is loaded on the account, and for shared rides the fare can be split between passengers. The base charge (flag rate) is R12 (instead of taxis’ R5), but the R9 per km charge is on par with the lowest around (the rates have subsequently increased, in line with the premium service, but remain within generally available pricing).

If you use this link to sign up you’ll get R90 off your first ride (disclosure: I get R90, too).

The kicker for people who travel a lot is that Uber is ‘global’, so there’s no need to scratch around for a local taxi service. Simply land, open the app, tap, and off you go.

I am über-impressed!