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Cherries!

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!

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!

record+player+vinyl+LP


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!

Planned Obsolescence

Oscar Foulkes August 22, 2013 Uncategorized No comments
Planned obsolescence may be the corporate world’s dirty little secret. Take light bulbs, for instance, which I seem to buy every second week. Whether old-fashioned incandescent, or newfangled CFLs, they just don’t last. Perhaps I should start documenting the date that each bulb goes into service, cross-referenced to the proof of purchase, so that I know which retailer to complain to when they give up the ghost.

I was at a house last night, which the current owners have inhabited for 33 years. They have two chandeliers that have had the same light bulbs for the entire time. It is not impossible that those bulbs could have been there for 20 years prior to them moving in. Extraordinary!

I asked my friend if there is any brand or imprint on the bulbs (there isn’t), with the thought that it could guide my future light bulb purchases. Upon reflection, this was very foolish of me. If this company makes light bulbs that last decades, how could it possibly still be in business?

The Grammar of Erections

Oscar Foulkes July 23, 2013 Uncategorized 1 comment
Verbs become nouns, and nouns can give rise to yet other nouns. It’s not exactly dog-eat-dog, but you’ve got to be on your toes in the word world. As a marketing person, one of my favourites is the word ‘brand’, my point being that it becomes a noun (i.e. a well-established marque) only after it has been a verb, implying that a whole lot of activity has taken place. Verbs are ‘doing’ words, after all.

So far, so good.

From the verb ‘to erect’ we get the noun ‘erection’. There’s certainly a great deal of ‘doing’ in the process of erecting a building (a noun which itself derives from a verb).

This is a nifty point to lead into the case of nouns multiplying. If we overlook the possibility of ‘building’ being a generic term, buildings can be cottages, houses, hotels, towers, and more. Whisk some eggs, cook them, and all of a sudden you’d call them an omelette.

All these examples – and I’m sure I could find dozens more – involve a significant change from one state of a noun to one so different that it requires a new word.

With this in mind, what is so special about a tumescent penis that it warrants being called an erection? Think about it, all that’s happened is that a bit of extra blood has been pumped into a confined space (admittedly some are more confined that others).

Compare this with the graft involved in building a house. This type of erection takes months of labour, vast quantities of building materials, not to mention architects’ drawings and more. That’s a lot of doing. In this context, describing an erect penis as an erection is a fairly substantial delusion of grandeur.

It can only be because a man came up with the idea of taking a perfectly good adjective (denoting that the penis is not flaccid) and turning it into a noun.

To call an erect penis an erection is to almost create an entirely new life form, a beast that gives more power to manhood. This being has needs different to the benign, conservatively dressed corporate man. It wants, craves, needs, DESERVES sex, and let no woman (or man) stand in its way. It is a loaded gun (dare I say “spear”?), which can be disarmed just as effectively by masturbation, but its brain calls for coupling, which may also involve a chase ending in conquest.

I have no doubt that some will read the previous paragraph with great delight, as proof of the feminist agenda. Please suspend the smugness for just a minute.

Consider the case of men in committed, loving relationships where the beast does not have equal appeal to both parties. Imagine the turmoil of living with the beast’s primal needs under these circumstances.

Considering that there is no ‘doing’ involved, it does not surprise me that there is no verb version of ‘celibate’.

The word is the basis for a sweet story involving one of the deceased Popes (in heaven, of course). Someone comes upon him in a library of ancient manuscripts, in a state of great distress. He is asked what the matter is, to which he replies: “The R, the R! The word is celebrate!”

Which brings us to another feature of the erection. Regardless of its rigidity, or the intensity that drives its actions, it is a very fragile construction. It is the hydraulic version of a house built on sand. Like all celebrations – however joyous – its lifespan is limited.

For an erection, ‘doing’ is its undoing, if you see what I mean.




The Making of a Digital Creature

Oscar Foulkes July 19, 2013 Uncategorized No comments
Earlier this year, I came to the realisation that the business services I offer fall within the niche known as ‘digital’. To be honest, for someone who has made a career of marketing and selling stuff, I wasn’t great at selling my own wares. In fact, it could be said that I was floundering.

The key problem was that I was struggling to narrow my focus. I didn’t want to exclude opportunities by taking offerings off the menu. But, I also knew that a narrowly defined offering is much more likely to result in word-of-mouth, the casual chats that happen between friends (or even just acquaintances) and which lead to business opportunities.

Settling on digital was easy. Firstly, almost all the projects I’ve done over the past three years have involved ecommerce, web development, games, apps, social media, or emailed calls-to-action. Secondly, I am passionate about the medium. Generation X (of which I’m a member) is probably the last generation that will not be entirely digital. The onus on companies wanting to grab Generation Y (and beyond) as customers is to get themselves into the space in a relevant manner, but companies are generally run by older people, many of whom are either skeptical or scared of this digital world.

At the age of 46, I’ve done enough old-school commerce to be able to make this new frontier accessible to decision-makers.

So, how did I get here? In a sense, the seeds were sown when I was a teenager at boarding school. A friend had been given a ZX Spectrum, followed by a Commodore. At about the same time we were also taught BASIC as a little bit of extra-curricular inspiration. Despite the minimal processing power, we knew this was super-exciting space to be involved in.

But, for me at that stage of my life, horse racing and breeding held a greater allure, so I never developed much beyond that early interest. In about 1988, the small company I was involved in made the move to desktop publishing, with a Macintosh networked to an early-generation PC. Soon after, we started building a database of South African horse racing and breeding. I was the internal IT guy, and ended up being self-taught in all the software we used, as well as setting up and running database queries.

From my late-20s I made the move into wine. I remained tech-aware, in that computers were a constant tool, much as they are for any other working person. I commissioned websites, but I was a little intimidated by the technical background. That was until I built my first website in 2008. As is my pattern, I learned by trying it out for myself, and just kept going.

What makes my offering unique, I believe, is that my primary interest is in digital as a tool. In other words, what is the utility of the thing? How does this benefit the end users? No matter how entangled I’ve become in the tech side of things, my sights remain set on the human beings who use the tools.

Which brings me to the new name, because there were already several similarly named businesses operating as digital agencies. What about just, “Oscar”, suggested my wife. Yes, said I, JustOscar is an excellent idea.

Playing With Food – Bay Leaves

Oscar Foulkes July 17, 2013 Uncategorized No comments

I was quite pleased with this little bit culinary ingenuity, if I say so myself. It’s entirely possible that someone has done this before, but seeing as Google searches on “bayleaf salt” (and variations) produce gazillions of results for the Bayleaf restaurant in Salt Lake City, cyber evidence of this is not easily at hand.

OK, so here goes. Bay leaf is one of my favourite herbs, but the hardness of the leaves means that using them is not straightforward. Well, not like basil or thyme, for example. For dinner a couple of nights ago, I was keen to get the fresh bay leaf taste into some steaks I was cooking. So, I tossed a handful of bay leaves into a mortar with a few tablespoonfuls of salt and pestled it until the salt had turned green. I seasoned the raw steaks with the salt about 45 minutes before cooking them.

I was delighted to discover the bay leaf flavours well-infused into the steaks. Yum!

(I’d be interested to hear about other interesting herb salts, so please feel free to leave comments)

The Supercar Road Trip

Oscar Foulkes July 9, 2013 Uncategorized 1 comment

Golden Gate Park

“We are not thinking machines,” claims neurology professor Richard Restak, “We are feeling machines who think.” This statement implies that we humans are not quite as rational as classical economists would have us believe, and ties right in with the work of Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahnemann and others. Essentially, people who operate with the dispassion of Mr Spock (OK, I know he’s only half human) are as much a fantasy as the entire Star Trek storyline.

The motor vehicles I’ve owned have all been selected on the basis of practicality and affordability. And, even if I could have afforded something sexier it’s unlikely I would have bothered because I’ve never been any kind of petrol head. So, for me motoring has been all about thinking.

On a purely rational level, sports cars – whether they fall into the supercar bracket, or not – make no sense at all. Most of them have no space for golf clubs, they would look really stupid with a mountain bike hanging off the back of them, there’s hardly any space for people, and they spew greenhouse gases. That’s before one has filled the petrol tank, bought a R30 000 set of tyres, or anything related to keeping it on the road.

But, jeez, when you paddle down a gear to pass another vehicle and go roaring past in less than a second, or fly around corners at impossible speeds, that’s a feeling that is powerful enough to convert even the most staunch auto agnostic. And, of course, the feeling is spontaneous, involuntary, just smacking you in the gut, no computation required.

I spent a week in June as a guest on the Rogue Rally (loads of images on their Facebook page), during which 40-something supercars, comprising most of the best-known marques, sped around a variety of roads, racetracks and even along an Air Force runway. Driving in that convoy (while we were able to hang onto the back of it) was a huge thrill. Apart from the speed, there was also a huge sense of occasion – how often does one have that many Porsches, Ferraris, McLarens, Lamborghinis and others all sharing the same road? Wherever we went, people formed instant crowds, taking pictures on a variety of mobile devices.

Yes, every part of it was wrong. The expense, the speed, the carbon emissions, you name it, but damn, was it fun!

We had a track day in Welkom. In Kimberley, there was a 400m drag race, which got very interesting when the farmer who owned the adjoining land gunned his Toyota Hi-Lux straight at the oncoming McLaren and Porsche, forcing them to veer off the road. It could have been very messy.

In Bloemfontein we raced radio-controlled cars (actually, we kept crashing them). Then, we drove through the magnificent Golden Gate Park en route to Dullstroom. The following day we drove over the Long Tom pass to Graskop, where 2.8 km of national road near God’s Window had been closed for us. Each car had several runs on the empty road, which was a heap of fun (my host let me go two or three times).

After overnighting in Hazyview we drove to the Hoedspruit Air Force base, where we had a morning of racing on the runway. From there, we drove to Pilansberg via Magoebaskloof.

I love a road trip, and this was a particularly good one (even though we dodged hundreds of potholes). There was banter with the fellow participants, many of whom are from completely different backgrounds. There were party nights. There were comedians, DJs, a beat boxer, Zulu dancers and Kingsley Holgate. The landscapes – all of them – were beautiful. There was even a Samsung Galaxy S4 that fell into a soiled toilet bowl – and kind of lived to tell the tale.

Sometimes we think too much. We just need to DO and FEEL. We may be amazed by the new experiences that we end up enjoying (even if they are wrong on every rational level). I was.

Digital Tools for the July

Oscar Foulkes July 5, 2013 Uncategorized No comments

In the old, paper-based days, the most important sources of Thoroughbred information were the Stud Book and the Racing Calendar. The former recorded the foals born over a designated period, along with their sires and dams, while the results of each season’s races were published in the Racing Calendar. As long as you had access to the books, all the information was available, but any research took days.

All this is tailor made for databases, accessed in seconds over the Internet, whether from computers or smart phones. Of course, when Charles Faull’s team at Form started digitising this type of information in the early 90s, Tim Berners-Lee had only recently proposed the World Wide Web, and first generation mobile phones were not yet on the scene. It took years before PCs achieved the processing power and storage capacity of today’s smart phones.

Over the past year I’ve been working with the Form team in creating several digital resources for horse racing, the most recent of which is the full record of the Vodacom Durban July, all the way back to Campanajo’s victory in 1897 (www.julyhandicap.info – much of the history unfortunately switched off for maintenance at the moment). As you scroll through the results, you see that it truly is the ‘July’ handicap, with the biggest deviation coming in 2010, when the FIFA World Cup pushed the July out to the 31st.

A horse race – especially when contested by champions – is a dramatic event, worthy of a poet’s best efforts. But there is some fairly basic and inviolable science that fells the efforts of all but the very mightiest of equines.

Newton’s Second Law is as valid now as it was 300 years ago. Put simply, the weight carried by a racehorse has a measurable drag effect. This, of course, is the basis for the handicap. Since 1970, just three top-weights have won the July, which says something for the power wielded by the handicapper.

One of the most significant components of JulyHandicap.info is the FMR (Form Merit Rating), which reveals some colossal performances by horses who never won the July. The mare Olympic Duel carried 57.5kg to a one-length third behind Spanish Galliard (54.5kg), Model Man (57kg) ran the three-year-old Bush Telegraph (49kg) to a length and a quarter, and any discussion about weight-carrying in the July would inevitably include William Penn who carried 26 lb more than Chimboraa when he finished half a length back in second. Or, how about Milesia Pride getting beaten a length and a quarter in 1951 when he carried 37 lb more than the winner?

With this merit assessment as a foundation, the team has also produced a mobile-based preview of the 2013 Vodacom Durban July, along with a complete race card of the day’s racing. Whatever smart phone you’re carrying – as long as 3G bandwidth is not overwhelmed at Greyville – you’ll have the entire day’s racing on your phone. Visit RaceForm.info to get the inside track on all the July Day action.