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My Little Black Book

Forecasting, Chance, Probability and more

Oscar Foulkes January 10, 2014 Books No comments
In years past, I’ve opened my holiday reading with an escapist novel that I don’t put down until it’s finished, surfacing only for meals. I find it’s a great way to disconnect, which is the point of a holiday, after all.

This year, I kicked off with Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. It was an uncharacteristic choice because it’s not a novel, and far from being a vegetative experience, the book encourages some self-examination.

It is a richly-layered examination of prediction, probability, correlation and causality. He is all about finding meaningful relationships between data. A very simple, but highly illustrative example, is the observation that in the same months that ice cream sales peak, there is also an increase in the number of bush fires. There is correlation, but no causality. He makes the point that Big Data increases the opportunity of finding data points that randomly correlate, thereby actually working against good predictions.

Silver expounds a Bayesian approach to prediction, in which a base rate or ‘prior probability’ is the beginning point. Having made the first prediction, the ‘prior’ is updated, which offers the opportunity of fine-tuning second- and third-round predictions. It’s all very interesting and thought-provoking.

There is related subject matter in my second read, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The spontaneous, generally involuntary ‘fast’ thoughts produced by what he calls System 1, can result in a variety of biases and prejudices. Overcoming these is the work of System 2, our ‘slow’, more analytical way of thinking. It’s not as easy a read as Silver’s book, but it is no less interesting. Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work, so it is no surprise that his book is a much more dense read.

Nate Silver was a professional poker player for a while, putting his predictive abilities to the test. There certainly is a fit between gambling and prediction; over time, unsuccessful gamblers are those who demonstrate poorer understanding of probability.

Chance is linked to probability, but it’s different to luck. Kahneman cites Nassim Taleb in introducing “narrative fallacy”, which is our tendency to string together apparently relevant events in an attempt to construct causality, without allowing for the huge role played by luck. If you don’t like the word ‘luck’, substitute good fortune. For example, Google – and its founders – is the subject of numerous case studies. However, in the early years they would have sold the entire company for less than $1 million, but the potential buyer thought the price was too high. The Larry Page and Sergey Brin legend would have read very differently!

Even if we are not forecasting professionals, we are required to assess probability on a daily basis. We may as well learn to do it better. These books are a great place to start.



Outgoing Mail Server Solution

Oscar Foulkes July 18, 2013 My Little Black Book, Web Tools No comments

As we move around with our mobile devices, switching between 3G connection and various WiFi networks, outgoing mail settings (SMTP) are as much an issue as when we moved around with laptops only.

The reason for this is that each connection to the internet – whether via LAN, WiFi or mobile – uses its own SMTP server. There’s no problem receiving mail using all these various networks, but if you want to send mail you need to change settings. The problem is this – in most locations no-one knows what the SMTP server is for that network. And, even if you could find it out, who wants to be bothered with adding new SMTP servers?

The solution is one I’ve been punting for several years, smtp2go, which is one outgoing server you use wherever you are, on all your devices (you can read more about it here).

(Disclosure: I earn a small referral fee as a result of sign-ups that originate from this site)

A New Source of Wine Bargains

Oscar Foulkes August 7, 2012 Wines No comments

5 Ounces deals last just a few days, with 6-bottle pricing ranging between R300 and R500.

One of the benefits of being involved in the wine industry, as I was from 1993 until 2009 (with another two years of consulting), is that I didn’t need to put much effort into procuring my next case of wine. And, I hardly ever paid retail prices.

Let’s just say I got spoilt. The other thing that happened was that I was generally in control of my own drinking choices.

A couple of months ago, I was approached to produce content for a new deal website, 5 Ounces. I’m very happy writing about wine in a sales orientated way – it is, after all, something I’ve done for the best part of two decades. The difference is that this time I play no part in the selection process, nor in the commercial decisions related to pricing etc. So, I truly am not in control of my drinking choices.

Apart from the fact that it’s gainful employment (very useful thing, money) I’m getting exposed to many more wines than I would have been drinking otherwise, several of which are seriously exciting. What’s also been striking is the number of top end reds that are five or six years old (there’s even one ten-year-old), which suggests that some producers are having a tough time selling their wares. It may not be ideal for the producers, but it’s a great opportunity for us consumers to get access to reds that have already been partially matured. And, best of all for 5 Ounces customers, is that there’s always a deal, which is usually a discount of up to 45% off the retail price.

(When you sign up using this link you get a R50 credit on your first purchase.)

Holiday Reading

Oscar Foulkes January 13, 2012 Books No comments

For me, holidays are a prime opportunity to pack in a LOT of reading. In previous years I’ve kicked off by diving into a Robert Goddard, or something similar. You know, a plot into which one escapes for a day, or so, and by the time you emerge from the book the daily grind has magically vanished.

This year, I dived straight into the more serious stuff:

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin
If you think the title of this book is daunting, wait until you encounter the book itself. Well, I didn’t because I read it on iPad, but it must be quite a tome in physical form. Yergin won a Pullitzer Prize for his 1992 book The Prize (about oil), and he is something of a one-man energy think-tank. I won’t deny that reading the book requires a fairly substantial commitment; apart from its length, Yergin is not the most polished writer around (and, there are irritating errors, like “amuck” instead of “amok”)

The Quest is a bit like a semester course on oil, gas, coal, nuclear, geo-politics, prospecting, renewables, conservation, electricity, cars, and environmental issues. There is quite a large technical component to the book, but Yergin keeps it all interesting by incorporating some fascinating history (and a suprising cast of characters).

Energy, in its various forms, is something we consume – usually without even thinking about it – every second of every day. The world couldn’t be what it is without electricity and our various forms of vehicular transport, all of which require energy.

I give The Quest a definite thumbs-up. It’s worth making the effort to read this fascinating book.

The 52 Seductions, by Betty Herbert
This book is listed in chronological order of reading; there is absolutely nothing that ties 52 Seductions to The Quest. For starters, Herbert is a good – and funny – writer. Secondly, while the title and plot line suggest that sex is the subject, the book is actually about long term relationship, and marriage in particular.

The (real life) story is based upon a pact made by the author and her husband when they realise after 10 years of marriage that they seldom have sex. It’s not as if love has departed the relationship, far from it. No, desire is the missing ingredient. So they agree to take weekly turns at ‘seducing’ each other. Yes, it is a bit of date night with a twist (not all of them have what you might euphimistically call ‘happy endings’), but it’s really about marriage from the woman’s perspective, which is always a good thing for men to know about.

This is a light and easy read, which I’d also recommend.

Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt
By the time I’d finished this book I’d had a rather intense dose of woman-focused literature. Betancourt was a Colombian politician when she was captured by FARC rebels. It’s not that they were targeting her, but once they had serendipitously netted her they weren’t about to release this valuable bit of political capital. This book is about the six-and-a-half years she was in the jungle as their hostage.

She suffered all kinds of abuse – including being chained to a tree by her neck – and deprivations, which at times included a prohibition from speaking, or being spoken to. What preserves her throughout the ordeal is the realisation that, while she is a captive, she remains free to choose how she is going to respond, and what kind of person she is going to be. This is pretty much the same conclusion reached by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, which deals with his experiences in Nazi concentration camps.

There were so many FARC hostages in various parts of the jungle that one of the radio stations would broadcast messages recorded by friends and family, which they were able to listen to, sometimes covertly. This component made me think of the fixation we’ve developed with various forms of social media, which enable all kinds of conversations to happen. Betancourt was not only deprived of her liberty, but was restricted to receiving one-way communication only.

Betancourt has written a powerful and thought-provoking book, which I definitely recommend.

Chasing the Devil, by Tim Butcher
Butcher has previously reported from Liberia and Sierra Leone. He returns in order to – literally – follow in the footsteps of Graham Greene, who trekked in 1935 from Freetown, through Sierra Leone, into Liberia, then through Guinea, back into Liberia, and then by boat from Buchanan to Monrovia.

When Greene made the trip he was disenchanted with Europeans. He went in search of a kind of simplicity or purity, which he found in the jungle-dwelling Africans. Butcher has a somewhat different interest, in that he is trying to make sense of the extreme brutality and murderousness which characterised the various internecine wars that have taken place in the region over the past couple of decades.

Butcher observes that the jungle is a harsh environment in which to live. The locals’ best chance at survival is to stick together, which usually means towing the ‘bush’ line. Young men are trained – and indoctrinated – by highly secretive bush societies, or cults. In this context, the local tribe will carry far more sway than a distant government administration which makes no positive contribution to people’s lives, and which may in fact make their lives worse, through corruption and discrimination. He makes the (depressing) observation that, in Africa, Africans survive. In order to thrive they need to go elsewhere.

The presence of valuable natural resources has not improved their lives; if anything, minerals have resulted in more misery, as aggressors seek to control the assets.

Butcher is not only a deep an observant thinker, but also an excellent writer. I’ll be making to effort to read his other book, Blood River, soon.

The Hare With Amber Eyes

Oscar Foulkes December 3, 2011 Books 2 comments

Edmund de Waal, a ceramic artist, is bequeathed a collection of 264 netsuke (small and intricate Japanese carvings) by a great-uncle living in Tokyo. They entered the once-wealthy Ephrussi family in the 1870s when a Paris-based relative, Charles, bought the collection, which he later gave to a Viennese cousin as a wedding gift.

In The Hare With Amber Eyes, de Waal tells the fabulously engaging story of how his family, originating in Odessa, established something of a trans-European trading and banking empire similar to the Rothschilds’. He follows the story of the netsuke to Vienna, where the Jewish Ephrussi have an inevitable assignation with history.

The Ephrussi escape Nazi Austria, but forfeit their business, property and art. Through the intervention of a maid the netsuke are saved, which leads de Waal to ask the question: “Why should they have got through this war in a hiding place, when so many hidden people did not?”

Cape Town art dealer Michael Stevenson’s PhD thesis, Art & Aspirations, deals with the role that art collecting played in the Randlords validating their mining fortunes. The Ephrussi family, having settled in Paris and Vienna, did much the same thing.

Regardless of how nouveau the riche, old objects trace a path through history, and de Waal has told a wonderful tale around these netsuke. The Hare With Amber Eyes is unquestionably one of my favourite reads of the year.

Fantasy vs Reality

Oscar Foulkes September 7, 2011 Books No comments

Does this man look like the writer of lurid sexual fantasy? Nicholson Baker, author of House of Holes

The future of physical book shops is not looking bright. Apart from the fact that many people couldn’t be bothered to read (or, even in developed countries, can’t read), there is the entire digital thing. Books are cheaper and quicker to get in electronic form, and a variety of websites deliver cutting edge references on any subject you can imagine.

I love browsing book shops as much as anyone, but I have joined the ranks of Kindle users (using the Android tablet I bought last month). According to Amazon, by May 2011 they had sold more book downloads than they did in all of 2010!

The thing is this. Yes, it’s half the price, but the immediacy is so damn appealing. Last week I was reading an FT interview with Nicholson Baker, the author of House of Holes, and was able to buy the book without walking more than three steps.

House of Holes is an exercise in unbounded sexual fantasy. Think Roald Dahl (in adult short story format), Enid Blyton fairies and Alice in Wonderland, all of it viewed through a light mist of psychedelia. One reviewer has even tossed a little bit of Tellytubbies into the mix.

The book is largely about body parts – the book even opens with a pleasure-giving arm that has parted company with its host body – that are driven by pleasurable sensations. In the context of this book, the pleasure is all sexual, and no holds are barred.

Baker manages to keep it all light, comical even, with rhythmical narrative that at times is more reminiscent of poetry than prose. Writing about sex also brings up the weighty issue of how one describes it, and the body parts involved.

I haven’t been able to work out why one character refers to his penis (as in John Thomas) as his Malcolm Gladwell, but Baker trots out an impressive sequence of euphemistic references. I found myself chuckling at some of these.

One of the other ways he keeps the book light, I suspect, is by not making much effort to develop any characters. House of Holes is an entertaining read, which is sexual, but not necessarily pornographic.

Not exactly a convent girl, Roxana Shirazi, author of Last Living Slut

Last Living Slut, on the other hand, is a real story, about a real person’s sexual exploits. I was exposed to it in a real book shop, but bought it electronically (yes, I know I was leeching off their overheads). The Slutwalk movement has given new meaning to the word slut, and the author, Roxana Shirazi, is at pains to defend the position of (often promiscuous) women who match men’s interest in sex. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, can’t argue with that.

And, with a surname that is one vowel away from being the name of one of my favourite grape varieties – Shiraz – my curiosity was piqued. I should also add, at this point, that the Facebook page for The Very Sexy Shiraz (one of the products I created at Cloof) has been inhabited by a large number of Iranians (you can read more that here).

Roxana Shirazi lived in Iran until she was 10, and then moved to the UK with her grandmother to get away from the revolution. A lay psychologist (upon reflection ‘lay’ is perhaps not the ideal word) could have a field day extrapolating an absent, opium-addicted father, physically abusive stepfather and a sexually abusive lodger, into the rock groupie that she grew into.

I can’t say that I found Last Living Slut a satisfying read. Yes, the book is littered with explicit descriptions of her (and friends’) uninhibited exploits with rockers, but once that component is removed, not much remains. I couldn’t say that the book goes anywhere with its potentially fertile material; there must – surely – have been scope for greater examination of deeper issues. Various themes or episodes are left dangling, which include her attempted suicide, and, to some extent, her abortion.

I would fault the book, also, on a generally staccato, if not chaotic, flow, which is also somewhat sloppy (OK, given the context, perhaps this is also not the ideal word). She starts one (short) chapter aged 21, and ends it a few pages later aged 24, without any sense of a passage of time. Perhaps it is what one would expect from a rock groupie, but this one has a Masters degree.

I’ve never been able to sing, nor can I play any musical instruments. But for these basic requirements I could happily have been a rock star. If nothing else, Roxana Shirazi has shown us some of the – admittedly transient – perks of being the object of young women’s adulation (if she ever pitches up at my house I’ll instantly start bashing away at my son’s drums!).

I’m sure she could have done a better job of writing her story. Perhaps she’ll come back to it all at some point in the future and have another stab at it.

Until then, I have to declare the work of fantasy as the winner of this month’s read-off.

Bargain Shopping

Oscar Foulkes August 11, 2011 My Little Black Book 3 comments

AliExpress - One-year Old Celebration
It is impossible to make the journey from Hong Kong airport into the city without being exposed to a number of times. The orange posters, with smiling faces of happy customers/suppliers, are everywhere. The Airport Express train has a perpetually looping clip of customers sharing their delight. They are operating on the assumption – of course – that a large number of travellers to Hong Kong are there to source products from China.

AliBaba is like a super-sized online trade show, where traders can buy just about anything (Yahoo is a major shareholder, which is one of the few bright spots as far as this struggling internet business is concerned).

I recently came across, which is the online shopping version of AliBaba. Much of the same stuff is available – even when purchasing one unit only – and it gets despatched via DHL or airmail post. Seeing as it’s one of the advertisers on this site (they pay a percentage of sales in lieu of access to the space) I thought I’d give them a test-drive.

I’ve been wanting to get a Kindle reader from Amazon, but have been bothered by the limited application of the device. While a tablet has many more uses, in its iPad incarnation it just seems that little bit too expensive for its utility (perhaps if I had more money I would be more comfortable with the iPad’s premium pricing).

From AliExpress I bought an Android tablet, including DHL delivery to my door, for just $190. At this price it’s the same cost as a Kindle, which I think is extremely good value. I’ve downloaded the Kindle app, so I get that functionality. In addition, I have a fully-fledged link to ‘the cloud’ (read my previous post about this). I’d certainly recommend this purchase (it’s been running very happily on my WiFi; next step is to get it hooked up to 3G, which requires a Huawei E1750 USB modem that I have on order).

I’m not suggesting that everything on AliExpress is going to be to everyone’s taste. However, some careful shopping certainly yields bargain results. I’ll be going back for their wide selection of cycling gear, which is going for a fraction of the high-street retail price.

You’ll notice the words “Escrow buyer protection” all over the site. This means that your payment is held in trust until you have received the goods, are satisfied with them, and then release the payment.

I wouldn’t forego my Hong Kong experiences, but here’s a way of accessing many of the same shopping bargains without paying the airfare (or buying whole containers of an item!).

Running Your Business in the Cloud

Oscar Foulkes August 3, 2011 Web Tools 2 comments

I have – occasionally – been accused of having my head in the clouds. It’s the kind of thing that gets said to people who appear to have little connection with reality (i.e. they “don’t have their feet on the ground”). I won’t deny that I happily give my imagination free rein, but my sense of reality is very … um … real.

There has been a lot of talk about cloud computing. The Cloud consists of servers parked in a variety of places around the world, which host both the documents/files we work on, and the software that we use. It’s a concept that runs completely counter to the basic computing principles that have made Bill Gates as rich as he is. No longer do you need Microsoft Office on your computer, and depending upon the device you’re using, you may not even be running Windows.

Google is not only the world’s dominant search engine, but with its Gmail and Google Docs offerings it is also a prime example of cloud computing. The pain we bear for using Gmail is that Google displays ads relevant to the content of our emails. Fair enough, it is a ‘free’ service.

Google Docs comes without this baggage. You can create and edit a variety of file types online, and then you can share them with other people (with, or without, editing rights), which makes it a lot more efficient than emailing multiple versions of the same source documents around the world, with various recipients making changes along the way. In Google Docs, one version of the document sits in a central place, so edits are visible to everyone in real time.

Google Apps is all this on steroids, because you can run your entire business in the Google cloud. And, you can add a huge variety of complementary apps.

The beauty is that you don’t need to maintain a file server, or a VPN, or buy any software, but it is a problem when your internet connection goes down. Fortunately, this generally doesn’t happen for more than a few hours per month. Google is by no means the only ‘cloud’ service available, but its sheer size makes one feel a lot more secure about not having in-office control over one’s data (which is sometimes a problem in its own right).

One of the most important tools that a company needs is a CRM (customer relationship manager). The feature I most love about a CRM (other than the contact information) is the linking of emails to particular contacts (or projects, even). I’m not a great filer, so it suits me when this gets done automatically. For companies that run sales teams it’s also really useful to know what the pipeline looks like, in terms of opportunities and closed sales.

Insightly CRM is available as a free app in Google Apps (paid versions only kick in for larger contact databases, but these are cheaper than SalesForce, SugarCRM and others). I’ve been test-driving it and have been very impressed.

You still read your emails through Gmail, but there’s a little button you can click if you want the mail to be stored in all the relevant spots in Insightly. And, when sending email you bcc a designated address, which then stores outgoing mails in the correct spots.

Insightly also creates contacts and organisations automatically when emails are received. What blew me away was the way it intuitively creates organisations. It takes the name of the organisation from the email domain (the bit), which does need a little editing. Then, it takes a logo from the email footer and links the logo to the organisation. The last bit is quite spectacular; Insightly goes to the website of and grabs the meta description (an extra bit of hidden information that makes the website more search engine friendly, by describing the company) and inserts that into a field, called background.

One shortcoming is that you can’t seem to link calendar events to contacts, so you have to use Google Calendar as a standalone service (however, Tasks are ported across by Insightly). And, while it is possible to initiate a reply to a stored email, the reply email won’t have the existing email conversation (i.e. it starts blank). However, it does usefully have that special bcc address automatically included. And, if you click on an email address while in Insightly the same thing happens.

I’m also busy test-driving a $190 Android tablet that I bought online (report to follow), which makes use of all the ‘cloud’ features above. This makes the cost of equipping the staff in a small business a lot more manageable – you don’t need software, or an office network, or a file server, and you can do a lot of your work on a device that is very affordable.

It’s worth getting your head around ‘the cloud’. It’s not pie in the sky, I can assure you.

Surviving Failure

Oscar Foulkes July 24, 2011 Books No comments

I am willing to wager a substantial amount of money that the majority of people in the world have a problematical relationship with failure. Against a backdrop of empirical measurement of our academic ability – especially a method that delivers a pass/fail result – and a general culture that makes it uncomfortable even for sub-optimal achievement, failure is not a condition we can be expected to embrace. We don’t like it, plain and simple. We avoid failure as if it were the plague.

Tim Harford, in his excellent book Adapt, isn’t exactly suggesting that we should seek out failure. Instead he says that experimentation is a necessary part of the evolution and success of organisations (and organisms). Failure is an inevitable consequence of experimentation, so we’ll all be better off if we have a sustainable way of dealing with it.

This matter-of-fact attitude to failure is quite reassuring, actually. It’s a relief to know that one can try something out, that it may not work out, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s normal.

The one part of this book with which I’m not in agreement is the choice of sub-title, “why success always starts with failure”, which strikes me as being intended to shock potential readers into a purchase. It’s not really what the book is about.

It’s not as if Adapt doesn’t describe failures; there are dozens of them, from the collapse of the Soviet Union’s economy to oil spills, Broadway musicals, and yes, the credit crisis. Harford relates the background to many of these failures in a most interesting and readable manner.

While he describes failure as natural, and certainly not a phenomenon that requires any feelings of shame, there are some provisos.

The first one is that failure should not lead to the extinction of the organisation or organism. In other words, the extent of the failure should be survivable.

The second critical component of failure is knowing that you’ve failed. Chasing your losses only makes it worse. So, it becomes critically important to have effective feedback loops. In the command economy of the Soviet Union any dissenting feedback generally resulted in the messenger getting shot. Donald Rumsfeld’s poor management of the war in Iraq was compounded by him shutting out feedback that didn’t accord with his position.

It’s only in the final chapter that Harford gets on to the personal dimension of failure. Up until that point he colours his message with a number of fascinating examples that he keeps at a reassuring distance. However, it was quite early in the book that I started thinking about my own failures.

My biggest failures have not obeyed the first rule of manageability. While there may not have been anything wrong with the experimentation, I committed myself on a scale that made survival almost impossible if it didn’t work out right.

Another example he uses, is of those huge domino set-ups, where disturbing one will lead to all of them getting knocked over. It’s a great spectacle if they start tipping at the correct time, but a disaster if it’s premature. It is for this reason that the builders of these arrangements employ safety gates. This example he likens to the contagion that accompanied the credit crisis. One failure led to a whole bunch of others.

These examples offer just a small glimpse; there are many more.

Adapt is going to go onto my list of the most important books I’ve read. It doesn’t set out to be a self-help book, but for a perpetual experimenter like myself it’s a really important reference.

Where failure is concerned, the only failure is to omit it from the possible outcomes. And not to allow new information to change your course of action.

How to customise Facebook pages

Oscar Foulkes July 18, 2011 Web Tools No comments

Facebook pages are being used by a wide variety of business and interest groups. I’m not suggesting that they are appropriate for all businesses, but I think the social component has interesting applications for the likes of restaurants and entertainment venues. And, apart from the usual ‘Wall’ functions, one can add additional tabs to Facebook pages, which create the opportunity for all kinds of interactions with ‘fans’.

With the aim of learning how to use Facebook to develop deeper relationships with fans of Facebook pages, I test-drove a few different resources:


This is one of the most impressive online resources I’ve come across. The beauty of Shortstack is that you don’t need web development skills to use it, and it manages the Facebook integration for you. The free plan gives you the opportunity of playing around with their features, which are pretty impressive. As an example, it took me a couple of minutes to add a reservation tab to the Sidedish Theatre Bistro Facebook page.

AliExpress by Alibaba.comAnything you’ve seen on Facebook, from promotions to custom forms, gifts, polls, you name it, it’s there. There’s even a really cool widget that does a ‘fan reveal’ (in other words, content that is only available to fans of your page). You can also embed content from a website, or publish a product list (useful for e-commerce). Paid plans range in price from $15 per month.

Fanpage Minisite ($37 once-off) and Fanpage In a Box ($9.95 per month, or $39 lifetime) are similar, in that they provide templates for the web content that goes into that tab on Facebook. I like the WordPress interface both of them have. However, both of them require basic web development skills, so are not as user-friendly as Shortstack.

The benefit of these two is that the charge is once-off, and if your web development skills are advanced you could build in all kinds of cool features. For example, I’m certainly going to be adding Shopping Cart tabs to some of the Facebook pages I run, linked to the online shops I’m involved in.

All three of the vendors listed above have detailed online videos that take you through all the steps required.

With these resources, all it takes to become a Facebook Ninja is a few mouse clicks!