Tuesday, 08 November 2011

new pastures

This is my first post on this site for quit a while. The reason is simple. Having been diagnosed with pancreas cancer some months ago my orientation changed. To support my new status, I created a new blog. 4 minute expressions.

The format is almost but not quite that of a personal journal. It is a record of my journey through these rough and unpredictable times.

I am just beginning to understand the nature of the disease and try to record at east some of what I know. The site is not morbid or depressing. It is just me. But it is also a move away from writing about politics, economics, business to something more personal and perhaps just as important.

As time goes by I find myself becoming more positive. My expectation is that I will somehow survive and carry on with my new life.

Please join me on the site. If you have cancer - especially of the pancreas - please get in touch. 4 minute expressions

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The roots of the organic food industry were sewn in the late 1960s with the dawn of a new wave of environmental awareness. 
The industry has since shown astonishing growth that has surprised its critics. According to the Organic Food: Global Industry Guide published in February 2009, the industry has a global value of $52 billion with a forecast to reach $83.1 billion by 2013.

The growth in organic foods from a fringe industry to a mainstream part of the food supply is partly the result of growing environmental awareness, partly the result of the growing scientific evidence of the superior nutritional value of organic food. 
... read more

Sunday, 11 September 2011


The treatment room is a room full of large black reclining chairs. On one wall is a large TV, always turned on, not always audible. The wall to the right of theTV has a window that faces onto an attractive garden. Once you have seen the doctor, you select your seat and wait for the nurses. The mixture is prepared by the pharmacist. I don't have a port. A port is a semi-permanent arrangement that eliminates the need to find a new vein every time. I have to settle for an IV. It can last a few hours. The mixture can burn as it goes through the veins but when it is over for another week, it is over. Then there is just the fatigue that follows a day or two later. A fatiguee unlike any other. You may only succumb. Then, life goes on.

Tuesday, 09 August 2011

A glimmer of hope

The Cancer post was written just over a month ago. Since then treatment has started. Apart from the treatment, I have encountered a lot of information about people making full recoveries from cancer.

The first glimmer of hope came about as a result of the chemotherapy. Apart from a feeling of total fatigue on day three, the side effects were minimal. More importantly, after only one treatment I was feeling much stronger.

Actually, the description of one treatment is not quite accurate. I had one "traditional" chemo treatment through an IV lasting about 3 hours. In addition, I have another "new generation" chemo therapy that I take in the form of a daily tablet. The traditional treatment attacks all fast acting cells in the body. The tablet targets only cancer cells. It attackes a specific form of protein that is found in malignant cells. It has few side effects. The main side effect is an extensive rash all over my body. It itches. It looks like achne.

The other ray of hope stems from what I have been reading. It seems that lots of people have cured themselves of cancer by maintaining a positive attitude, the will to live, relaxation, meditation and visualisations.

If others can do it, why not me?

Sunday, 07 August 2011


Everything was just fin on the morning of 1 June. It was my first day at a new job with one of the few companies that I would want to work. The company had planned three days of induction and the first was a lot of fun.

At about 10:00 p.m. I began to experience extreme pain in the upper abdomen. It was an enlarged spleen, possible with an infarction pressing against my left lung. The pain intensified and I was battling to breathe.

A voluntary medical rescue organization called Hatzollah put me on oxygen and got me to the hospital. My condition stabilized with the help of painkillers. Blood was taken and my chest x-rayed. The doctor on duty wanted to follow up on something from the blood tests. He suspected a possible clot on the lung.

I was sent home at 2:00 a.m. and asked to return at 6:30 for a CT scan of my chest. Several hours later, another doctor came to see me. There was no clot on the lung. “You have pneumonia,” he said. “1000 percent its pneumonia,” he continued. A massive prescription for penicillin and pain killers followed and I was sent home to recover.

Over the next few days, I lay in bed. I was very weak and able to eat only a mouthful to be able to take my medicines. By the 9th of June I had lost 4.5 kg. A visit to my GP revealed possible hepatitis.

More rest and an attempt to return to work followed. But now I began experiencing some pain in the right hand side of my abdomen and I was sent for an ultrasound scan of the entire area. A visit to a physician followed by a biopsy on some the lesions of the liver revealed malignant cells. It was cancer. The cancer originated in the pancreas and had spread to the liver.

The prognosis is poor. There is no cure. One in three respond to chemo. My chemotherapy will be starting on Friday. I hope that I will be amongst the one in three. I hope that I will be amongst the one in a million that survive longer than the one in three.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Why can't we give peace a chance?

In 1969 John Lennon released a song that became an anthem of the peace movement. The song's lyrics simply point to the human need to give peace a chance. It was part of his contribution to the peace movement. In another song, John Lennon sings that "war is over if you want it".
Forty two years later and there are wars on almost every continent. In every case it can be argued that there is something that people want more than peace. They want power. They want to dominate each other. They want their own particular view of life to prevail over another view. Sometimes people fight for freedom.
Instead of an end to fear, premature deaths and destruction, millions of people around the world live in fear.
Perhaps the biggest benefactors of war are the arms manufacturers. The more people play at war, the more money they make. Sometimes both sides use weapons built in the same factory. The deaths of others can help build wealth.
What happened to the dream?

Friday, 29 April 2011

Twenty minute meals

Many people shy away from cooking for themselves because cooking is thought to be a very time consuming business. But there are many ways to make good, healthy and delicious meals in no more than twenty minutes.
One great meal that can be made in twenty minutes is stir-fry meat and vegetables with pasta or noodles. Any type of or Chinese noodles or pasta will do for this recipe. The process of producing either Chinese noodles or pasta is virtually identical. When buying the pasta or noodles make sure that you buy a quality product. The ingredients of the pasta should be durum wheat semolina.
Many cuts of meat are suitable for stir-fry. Chicken provides a good low-cholesterol alternative to red meats. Many supermarkets and butchers sell beef and chicken ready cut into long thin strips specifically for stir frying.
Lemon juice is one of the best marinades available for meat. Squeeze a juicy lemon over the meat before you start and let it stand. Add a little soya sauce the Chinese or Japanese soya sauces are best to add flavour and colour.
You may use a variety of vegetables as part of the stir fry. The main rule is to cut everything into thin long strips - about the same length as the meat. Carrots, baby marrows, sweet peppers, spring onions, red cabbage, mushrooms and bean sprouts add colour and flavour to the meal. Pineapple cut into strips adds sweetness and counterbalances the herbs and chillies. Cut a fresh tomato into strips and keep in a separate bowl as these are added at the end. Add some parsley and any other available herbs to the mixture.
Olive oil is ideal for stir frying. Use only enough to cover the surface of the pan. For flavour, crush a few cloves of garlic into the olive oil. Fresh herbs - parsley, coriander, rocket, and rosemary - may be chopped and squeezed into the oil as well. Optionally, add some freshly chopped chilli, ginger and paprika. Add some whole or ground coriander seeds and ground black pepper.
Heat the oil over a gentle heat while a large pot of salted water is heated to boiling point.
Once the water boils add the pasta and stir. Turn the heat of the stir-fry pan or wok to full. When the pan becomes very hot add the meat and stir. Add the vegetables and stir. As soon as the meat or chicken changes colour (within 60 to 90 seconds) it is ready to eat! Add the fresh tomato and stir in some soy sauce.
Some excellent soy sauces are available at Chinese shops at very low cost. The best of these do not contain MSG. A dark soy sauce imparts a rich dark colour to your food.
Cover the pan and remove from the heat. Once the pasta is ready, drain the water and add a little olive oil. Toss well and add the stir-fry mixture. Mix well and distribute generous portions. Serve with a fresh green salad.
The longest part of the preparation is in the chopping of the meat and vegetables. Both are usually available ready chopped. Use the pre-prepared ingredients with pleasure as long as they are fresh.
Stir-fried food is lightly cooked retaining all of the flavour and nutrients of the ingredients. Once you have pre-prepared meat and vegetables and boiling water the entire meal can be prepared in less than ten minutes or as long as it takes to cook the pasta.
Experiment with different vegetables, herbs and spices.
A variation is to mix the herbs and spices with the soy sauce into a paste. Cook this gently with the tomatoes and add to the mixture at the end.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Pictures of a majestic Rough Collie

Pablo is a Rough Collie. He is just over two years old. 
Rough Collies originate in Scotland. Pablo's colouring is known as Sable, and there are a number of variations. The coat has three layers
Many will recognise the famous Lassie in these pictures. 

Rough collies are very intelligent, have a wonderful nature and are very responsive to training. He understands a large number of words, phrases and sentences. Although very gentle, Pablo will do almost anything to protect his home and family. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


The concept of time is one that encompases the very nature of the world and the universe. We measure time in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries and milleniums. But even without measurement, the world keeps on turning. The new replaces the old. That time is relative is not in question. On a different planet time may move more slowly. To G-d, a thousand years may be like a second, but our concept of time is governed by the way we experience it.

In the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards "Time waits for no one and it won't wait for me" (the Rolling Stones, 1974).
Our universe is bound by time. We can never stop the hands of time from moving on, taking us through the journey of life. Everything happens in time. The world will turn, the seasons will change. New life is born, grows and eventually dies. People change, countries change, governments change. It happens in time.
An ancient story is told about King Solomon. He sought out a ring that would be able to affect the very spiritual being of man. A ring that would be able to make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. Eventually, a ring was brought. There were three Hebrew letters engraved upon it - G, Z and Y. King Solomon saw the letters and instantly grasped the meaning. The letters signified the Hebrew words Gam Ze Yaavor - This Too Shall Pass. When reaping the rewards of success, it reminds us that this too shall pass. When success eludes us and we are suffering in the depths of despair, again we are reminded that this too shall pass.
This reveals one of the greatest truths. The circular nature of life and time. Look at the ring in good times. Look at it in bad times. At all times we must realise that this too must pass. Success, failure, pleasure and suffering. All are transitory. All will pass. Time will move on and even catastrophic events will disappear in history.
In Judaism, round apples are dipped in honey to symbolise the circularity of time at the New Year. Round foods are eaten after a funeral to remind us of the circular nature if life.
Since the most ancient times, man has found ways of measuring time. The rotation of the earth and our annual journey around the sun provide us with days and years. The moon has provided months. We divide the day into hours, minutes and seconds. Sunset to sunset. Sunrise to sunrise.
We have created calendars to chart the passage of time. The calendar is filled with special dates that we can remember. Dates that signify events, birthdays, anniversaries and deaths. Dates that signify the passing of years, festivals, political and religious holidays.
Everything in life can change. We journey through time through the seasons of life. There is no destination. Time continues to move on. Everything happens in time. Opportunity, luck, disaster, success and failure can only happen in time. Once it has passed there is no going back. "If only I had known ... " is a common refrain. But there is only one way and that is forward. Forward through time.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The pros and cons of online dating

The days when making use of a dating service or a 'lonely hearts club' carried a stigma are long gone. Online dating has become an accepted and popular option for men and women seeking partners or simply wishing to expand their social networks. As with all things in life, there are disadvantages associated with online dating, but these are outweighed by the advantages!

Online dating provides a relatively safe platform from which to meet prospective partners. Many shy away from meeting in bars and clubs. Online dating sites provide an environment where you can gain some knowledge of your prospective dates before meeting face to face. Thousands of people of all ages register on dating sites providing a huge choice of potential partners.
Meeting traditionally takes place through social networks. Occasionally people do meet at clubs or bars. Online dating opens up the opportunity to meet a much broader range of people than would be possible using only your own resources.
Online dating provides the opportunity to meet. Members begin by viewing profiles of prospective dates followed by an email. Contact details are generally not exchanged until both parties are happy to meet. Dating sites provide an element of protection by allowing you to vet your prospective date.
Unsuitable prospects can be eliminated immediately. The prospective partner's profile or style of writing provides clues! The dating site may also provide an indication of how well you meet each other's requirements, whether or not you are a match.
But there are pitfalls to be aware of when joining an online dating site. The online environment provides a platform for those with dishonourable intentions to hide their true selves. People are able to adapt an online personality that bears little resemblance to their true selves.
Some use dating sites to deliberately misrepresent themselves. They post photographs that were taken many years ago. Sometimes they post photos of celebrities. There is an element of risk in moving from the email communication to meeting. The actual meeting can turn out to be a total shock. A stunning twenty year old blonde turns out to be an obese alcoholic of forty plus.
It is always a good idea to arrange a first meeting at a public venue. It your date is not what you expected then it is advisable to walk away. A person that misrepresents him or herself online is unlikely to become a trustworthy partner! A crowded bar or restaurant allows for a quick get-away and an easy escape.
Then there are those that use the dating sites as a base for their scams. They join the sites for financial gain. The person represented in the profile doesn't really exist. Instead it is a criminal organisation that scams lonely and vulnerable people by posting false profiles and mailing them. They operate from far away countries such as Russia
and Ghana. They would like to meet with the prospect of marriage but don't have the money to travel. Once the victim has transferred the funds, the object of their desire disappears. 

Online dating sites do vet the profiles to try to eliminate scammers and people that use celebrity photos as their own. But some inevitably slip through the net.
Don't send money to the stunning Russian or to the sexy Swede in Ghana. If you do you will never see your money - or your prospective bride - again. The object of your desire doesn't really exist. They are really scammers operating from Internet cafes. Listen to your common sense!
Used with an awareness of the dangers, online dating is a very useful way of meeting prospective partners. Avoid the pitfalls and never send money for someone to travel to meet you. If your date turns out to be a different person from the one on the site, then leave immediately. Many lasting relationships have originated in an online dating site. Of course on-line communication will never replace a face to face meeting, but used with care the pros far outweigh the cons!

Ten things every man should be able to do

What makes a man a MAN?
Much of this will depend on your perspective. Women often say that they want a man that is sensitive and caring and shares his emotions. In practice they often choose a man that is quite the opposite. Assertiveness, decisiveness and the ability to act are better criteria. Then the are the MCP types. They have rather different views.
Here are two lists - pick the one that suits you best!
List 1 - The sensitive responsible type
1. A real man should be able to cook. Men make great cooks given half a chance. Creative cookery is therapeutic and fun. It could even be the way to a woman's heart!
2. A man should be a romantic. Buy flowers and surprises for his wife or girlfriend. Give her surprises. He should know how to keep the romance alive.
3. A man that can make money is a man that is sure of himself and who he is. My parents didn't tell me how important this is! Get your children to become chartered accountants. As Bob Dylan said, "Money doesn't talk it screams".
4. A real man knows how to drive intelligently. Drinking and driving is stupid, not macho! Being wide awake, aware, courteous and responsive on the roads is important. Men are responsible for keeping their family safe - reckless driving doesn't do it.
5. A man should take care of the home. Many men let everything go to pieces if the wife is away. Not necessary. If you're not a DIY fundi then leave the maintenance to the wife.
6. A man should participate in full with the children. This includes seeing to their basic needs, playing football, tennis, basketball and getting to all their sports events, concerts, plays and award ceremonies.
7. A man should know how to achieve a life balance. Workaholics do it at the expense of their families. Remember Cat Steven's "The Cats in The Cradle"?
8. A man should be assertive. Women don't like their men to be wimps. Make decisions. Take the lead.
9. A successful man should play golf. This helps with point 3 (making money) and with developing a social and business network.
10. A real man has principles. People respect a man with integrity, a man that stands by his beliefs. Always remember, "to yourself be true" (Bill Shakespeare).
List 2 - The caveman type of man 
Every man should be able to:
1. Hunt. If all else fails he can always bring home something to eat.
2. Be able to drink as much as his friends and hold it. A very important part of maintaining relationships.
3. Be able to fight - armed and unarmed. Defend himself, his friends and his family against insults and attacks.
4. Memorise the scores of all sports matches of the last day, week, month, year, decade... A very important skill for maintaining status.
5. Have a reliable friend to remind him of impending birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
6. Be assertive. He must be able to ensure that the night out with the boys is protected and sacred. Sports shows must take priority over a romantic movie!
7. Light a fire and be able to barbecue food.
8. Be Adventurous. Be prepared to take risks and drive fast. Always impresses.
9. Know how to treat women. They prefer a 'bastard'.
10. Remember the kids' names. A special effort is required to achieve this, but it saves all sorts of complications with the trouble and strife.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Which came first - the chicken or the egg?

While excavating a site in the Middle-East, an archaeologist came upon two perfectly preserved bodies. "I've found Adam and Eve," he exclaimed.
How did he know, and what is the relevance to this story?
The chicken and egg question is one of those imponderables to which there is no real answer. A chicken can only be born from a fertilised egg laid by an adult hen. So the egg precedes the chicken, and the chicken precedes the egg.
But where did the first chicken come from? Was it created in the Garden of Eden or was the egg created first? Or was it the result of some long-winded series of mutations in a never-ending evolutionary process?
Of course, taking the evolutionary view still does not give a definitive answer. Sure the chicken probably emerged from another more primitive form of bird. One that didn't taste as good. And before that from a fish or a reptile, none of which helps to answer the question. Perhaps the first chicken emerged from an egg of a chicken-like bird or a pre-chicken, but evolution is not that simple. Was there a single point in time when someone can say with any degree of certainty that the first chicken had been born. If that is the case then it follows that the egg came first.
Of course this debate could carry on indefinitely. Was this the first chicken - or was it a pre-chicken? Where exactly can we draw the line? And isn't a pre-chicken really a chicken and who really cares, anyway?
All of which leads is to the main problem of the theory of evolution. How did life start? In the entire history of the world as we know it life has never emerged from anything but life. Even if all life originated as an amoeba, where did the first amoeba come from? With all the science in the world, man has been unable to produce life. We are able to manipulate genes, breed selectively and with a little ingenuity perhaps produce a new species. But we are unable to produce life. Not only are we unable to produce life, but life have never been observed to have emerged of its own accord.
If you haven't figured out the archaeologist's certainty about Adam and Eve, the answer is that they had no navels. As they were not born in the conventional way, there was no need for an umbilical cord. Perhaps the first chicken came readymade and the egg came later?

How to take better portraits

Producing a natural looking portrait takes people and photographic skills. Not only must the photographer pay attention to the lighting but must make the subject at ease. Portrait photography often takes place in the controlled environment of a studio. Yet some of the greatest and most natural looking portraits are achieved when the subject is photographed in a more natural setting.
Capturing a world leader addressing an audience, an actor playing a role or a pianist at the keyboard provide some of the most powerful and natural looking portraits.
A studio generally gives the photographer a choice of backgrounds and lighting options. Many photographers do not have access to this luxury and have to make do with more natural settings for their portrait photography. Selecting an appropriate background or setting may be the first step towards giving the portrait a natural look and feel. Photographing an artist in an art studio defines the artist in the resulting portrait. Capturing the picture while the artist is at work will produce the most telling results.
Professional models are usually quite comfortable posing in front of the camera, but other subjects do not feel the same way. They tend to feel and look quite self-conscious when posing for a picture. It is up to the photographer to engage the subject in conversation in a way that will make her feel relaxed and at home. Young children make excellent subjects for portrait photography. They respond to objects such as balloons and to rewards of sweets at the end of the shoot. A photographer that has a little of the comedian inside may be able to break the ice more easily, but taking an interest in the subject and listening to what they have to say could produce the right atmosphere.
A good portrait can be achieved either outdoors or indoors. Outdoor photography means relinquishing some control of the lighting, but natural lighting and shade can be very effective in producing good results. Using a medium telephoto lens and blurring the background by using a wide aperture is very effective way to create an effective portrait. Couple this with a little back lighting produces a soft effect.
Children can be photographed under almost any lighting conditions. For adults, softer lighting options are more flattering. A diffuser should be used to break up the light. Alternatively, bounce the flash against a white ceiling or screen to produce a soft and balanced effect.
The effective use of light is one of the keys to produce natural looking results. A light or flash should never be pointed directly into the subject's face. A diffused light slightly to the one side is effective, but it may be necessary to provide additional fill-in light and possibly even some back lighting. Good use of lighting will help to avoid flat portraits with dark shadows on the face. Harsh shadows from a flash or a direct light are always to be avoided.
Using a medium telephoto lens is generally my preferred option. It allows for a close-up without over-emphasising the features. It is also simpler for a subject to feel relaxed and at home when the photographer is at a greater distance.
When the photographer devotes some time to engage with the subject can help to achieve a more relaxed and natural looking portrait. This coupled with the right lighting should produce good results.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Is text-messaging ruining real communication?

Text messaging in itself cannot be held responsible for ruining real communication. But when text messaging becomes the exclusive means of communication, there is a problem. For some people, texting is the only way to talk! To make matters worse, many carry text messaging syntax into everything else.
By its nature, text messaging demands some kind of shorthand or jargon to work effectively. It is when this jargon is carried into emails, essays, school work and business reports that 'texting' - for want of a better term - becomes a problem.
Letter writing used to be an art in itself! This art has declined dramatically since the advent of the email age. Letters required thought and planning. Emails are different. The speed of the medium encourages us to write and send without much thought. Miscommunication is common.
This trend predates the text message style by some time, but texting has accelerated this process. Carelessness has entered the art of writing. Documents are prepared and released without proof-reading. The spell checker doesn't reveal that the wrong word has been used.
A more worrying trend is that for some, text messaging has replaced real interpersonal communication. Communication takes place behind a screen. The on-line persona bears little relation to the actual person. Face to face communication has become a problem. Perhaps this is indicative of other personality or communication disorders. But many young people spend a vast amount of time behind their computer screens or cell phones communicating with peers. Little time is spent in face-to-face conversation.
How often have you seen a group of young people together all keying messages on their cell phones at a furious rate?
Of course it must be noted that these are trends. In spite of learning bad writing habits through emails and messaging, most people are able to make the transition from one medium to another with ease. There are still many people that are able to communicate effectively.
But there are indications of an emerging trend. Increasingly, young people entering the worlds of business or higher education arrive with very sloppy writing habits. They have to be taught to pay attention to grammar, spelling and to proof-read their work.
The style of text messaging communication can encourage sloppiness and a lack of care in communication. But as with any other forms of slang or jargon, most people know when its use is appropriate. Of course there are some that have lost the ability to communicate face-to-face, but these types of people have always been around. 

How small business can make the best use of cloud computing

Computer network diagrams depict the Internet as a cloud. The cloud has become a metaphor for remotely hosted systems, storage and infrastructure that have become a reality with the growth of the Internet and broadband connections. More ...

How to prepare your house for Passover

The eight day festival of Passover or Pesach begins on the 15th of Nissan in the northern hemisphere's spring. Stress and frantic activity herald the festival’s arrival as Jews the world over prepare their homes for a kosher Passover. more

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Solar thermal power a viable alternative

Thermal Tower power plant
It seems that many are unconvinced at the viability of renewable sources as a source of electricity to power South Africa. Many are still convinced that Nuclear energy provides the answer. 
Solar energy arrives on Earth in two forms - light and heat. Light is converted to electricity using photovoltaic panels. Solar heat or thermal power has been used for many years to provide people's hot water needs. 
There has been some progress towards turning the sun's light into electricity using photo-voltaic cells joined into a series of panels. This type of technology has proven effective to power street lights and traffic lights. At present it is far too inefficient to provide a real alternative to grid electricity. 
Many people around the world have been using solar thermal power to provide hot water for their homes and offices. South Africa has only recently joined this trend. 
The latest trend in producing electricity from the sun uses the sun's thermal energy rather than light. Solar thermal power concentrates the heat from the sun by using mirrors to focus the power onto a single point. 
Solar thermal energy is fast proving itself to be the most cost-effective means of producing electricity, but cannot yet compete with coal in terms of cost. Coal wins the race of negative environmental impact by miles over any other source of energy. However, the cost of solar thermal power generation is falling fast, and will probably soon be cheaper than coal. 
In Solar Thermal Energy - an Industry Report the author states that "major solar thermal industry players such as eSolar, Brightsource, or Abengoa, have already beaten the price of photovoltaic and natural gas, and they have plans to beat the price of coal in the near future."
Currently, a 392 megawatt thermal power plant is under construction in California. Solar thermal power is being used in a number of countries with Australia and Spain taking the lead. 

Tuesday, 08 March 2011

Technology in London of the late 1960s

Swinging London: A Trunk Full of 60s ExoticaThe late 1960s was the era of flower power, hippies, the alternative society, folk music, free concerts in Hyde Park, Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the Beatles and the Stones, Pink Floyd and the best popular music ever. It was also the time that I arrived in London at the tender age of fifteen. 
Those were the days of pre-history in technology terms. There was no technology as we know it. There were a few items that we used that had been unchanged for years, but generally there wasn't much. 
Naturally, what we didn't have we didn't miss, and what we did have didn't change much from one year to another. 
We had cars in those days. Some of the cars were awesome, but the electronics were almost non-existent. No central locking, remote controls ... Today's most basic features were real luxuries.
Electronic calculators were still quite new and generally unsophisticated. We had just changed from the bright red LED display to the more gentle (and battery friendly) LCD display. This was the very beginning of the personal computer. 
At the shops and in business much was manual. Computers were used by large insurance companies to process large quantities of data. An insurance quote took weeks and was done by a person with a piece of paper, a calculator and a book of tables. All bank transactions were manual - nothing was online at all! 
We had the transistor radio. This was a portable radio that played radio stations. They sounded tinny.  Decent sound could only be achieved with large speakers. The transistor was replacing the valve in hi-fi components in a big way and there was much debate about which was better. Cassette recorders were replacing reel-to-reel tape recorders. The quality was not great and was often accompanied by a hissing sound. 
Telephones had large round dials with a hole that corresponded to each number. Inside was a real bell. 
The recording industry was able to produce remarkable quality on vinyl. Stereo was not as much a novelty as it had been just a few years earlier. Record companies and Hi-Fi technology manufacturers began producing quadrophonic LPs, a trend that didn't catch on. 
Colour TV was brand new and the colours were prone to go wrong often. TV sets were bulky. 
The closest you could get to a cell phone was a walkie-talkie as used by the cops, or a beeper - a call would forward a message to the device. 
There were no cell phones. You could go away and no-one would find you. There was no GPS. In an emergency we sent a telegram. 
The US managed to put a man on the moon with computers that used less than one megabyte of RAM. 
The microwave had been invented but was still unusual. South Africa did not have TV and all radio was state controlled. The UK had just started Radio 5 to replace the pirate radio stations. 
The call-centre had not yet been invented (now I see a touch of envy!!!). 
We used film in cameras and the closest we could get to a video was a 16 mm movie film. A 3 minute film cost a small fortune! 
There were no CDs, no DVDs. There were huge TV cameras at the huge pop festivals. These were able to shoot excellent footage of the events. 
There was no Internet! NO INTERNET! The closest we had were the emerging "underground press" in the form of it (international times) in the UK, OZ (a magazine) and Rolling Stone magazine in the US. A little news-sheet called Time Out in London had just begun and told us about gigs and other events. This hippy publication soon became a prominent weekly must have in London. 
I could go on ...

Microsoft fails the customer service test

After running a computer with a legal copy of Windows Vista Home Basic for three years, a message in large bold type suddenly appears on your screen. "Your copy of Windows is NOT GENUINE". 
This is what I was faced with just after 12:00 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. Windows Security Essentials highlighted the error, informing me that it would stop working within 30 days if the problem was not resolved. There was a link to check the problem with Microsoft Genuine Advantage. The link did not work. 
I called the Microsoft help-desk. A few trials later I managed to connect to Microsoft. I had to get my copy of the installation DVD and the validation key. After three years, the key was showing signs of wear and not all the characters show that clearly. Luckily, I managed to decipher all of the characters. We then checked the version of Windows that was installed and that it was activated. 
Then it was time to transfer me to Microsoft Technical support. After a long wait, the help desk got back to me. All the technical staff were busy, and would get back to me within a few minutes. 
40 minutes went by, and at 1:40 p.m. I called again. The same call centre lady transfered me to the right person. Another set of questions and a set of options as to how to fix it. Technical support would have to put in a call to the Engineers. They would call me back in an hour.  
I was still talking to technical support when my cell phone rang. No matter what I did, I could not answer. An issue with my Nokia phone that has become ever more frequent. I restarted my phone and went out for a short time. 
When I got back, there was a message on my cell and on the landline. I had to call the engineer back. We tried first this, then that. Eventually we removed the key, restarted the key and activated the computer again. Now the message on the screen was gone, but Security Essentials still displayed the prominent warning.  
We tried to resolve, but experienced great difficulty. IE8 just kept going through to Bing when trying to run the Genuine Advantage software. We changed the DNS setting from auto to one that he gave me. 
We had to run it using Chrome. 
Then we restarted the machine and the messages and warnings were gone. It seemed that the problem was gone. It was now after 5:00 p.m.
I received another call this morning. Everything was fine except that I could not access any local sites and many international sites as well. 
Eventually I remembered the DNS setting and changed it back. Like magic everything worked perfectly. At last. 
Although the problem has been resolved, the resolution falls far short of a satisfactory solution. There never was a problem, and I should not have been "accused" in this most terrible way. Luckily, I did not have any clients with me at the time. What if it was on my laptop in front of a client? Thought ... "mmm, the consultant doesn't buy a genuine copy of Windows".  It could have cost me a deal and much more. It did lose me the entire afternoon! 
The client support staff were all friendly and helpful. I do not have a problem with them at all. My only issue is that this incident should never have happened. How can I regain the respect of friends or clients that may have seen this happening? How can I regain all that wasted time? 
As far as I am concerned, this is nothing short of customer abuse. 

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Discovering what it takes to start a new business

With my other work options seeming to fall away, I decided to embark on a new business venture.
I had a number of choices.
The first was a restaurant. I am passionate about food. I cook every day and produce results that beat most restaurants - at least those that I can afford to go to. The problem lies in the funding. Getting a restaurant started costs major money. That is money that I don't have.
My second choice was to start a consulting business. The prospect of this succeeding worried me more than the restaurant, but it costs very little to start. At first it is just me. I have to market the business, get contracts and produce the right advice and analysis.
Networking has played a big part. Then research into my service offering. I managed to write a business plan. It took a lot of thought, effort and research. If anything, I am now more committed than ever. I have become passionate about what I offer and and ready to begin selling my solutions.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The call centre is not central to customer service ...

Fixing the call centre will fix the customer service problem in your business.
Customer service is not about how well the call centre deals with your customers. Customer service begins long before the call centre gets involved. It ends long after the call centre has played its part.
One of South Africa’s leading cellular networks has added a new dimension to its call centre. After spending twenty minutes waiting for and speaking to a call centre agent, the customer is now expected to expend even more time answering a survey on the quality of service received.
This process is flawed. Your customer did not want to call in the first place. The customer had better things to do with the twenty minutes that has already been spent. Asking the customer to spend another five to ten minutes to answer questions about the call centre experience is criminal.
Presumably, call-centre agents that achieve good survey ranks get a bonus. Those that get low ratings are disciplined.
The survey is based on entirely the wrong premise. It is based on the assumption that service related problems begin and end with the call centre. It is based on the assumption that the performance of the call centre agent plays a major part in delivering the service. It doesn’t. At the time that the call ends, the customer has no way of knowing if the problem has been resolved. He will only find that out later.
In the majority of cases, the result depends on the systems in place. The call-centre agent cannot do very much about these. The call centre is able to resolve a few small problems. It is unable to resolve issues where the customer has been overcharged or air time has not been credited.
These issues are typically passed to the “back office”, a black box that works on its own time to its own agenda. Once a query enters the black box, it disappears for an undetermined amount of time. It could be a week or it could be a month. All too often the query is simply closed without any resolution.
The poor customer has no choice but to phone the call centre again. When that fails, another call is followed by yet another call. Each time the customer has to start from scratch. The entire problem and its history have to be spelled out over and over again. The call centre is barred from putting the customer through to a manager. The number of the switchboard is a closely guarded secret. It is changed frequently to prevent people from using and distributing it.
Every major company in every country in the world now has a call centre. Everyone hates calling the call-centre. Everyone would rather speak to someone else. Even call-centre agents and the managers that run call centres hate them. Yet nobody questions the necessity of the call centre.