Sunday, 27 January 2008

Are you happy with your phone?

We often get asked this: are you happy with your cellphone? What a strange question. That is like being asked if you are happy with your TV. I keep hearing about HD TV. Suddenly people are not happy with their current sets. But, hang on, a great movie can play on good 'ol VHS. A high-def TV won't make a bad movie good. Yes, it will certainly enhance a great film, but it is all about quantity, not about quality.

So, back to the phone question. Am I happy with my cell? Well, I am when I get nice calls.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Around the world in 80 clicks

Next week two of the Vottlers are going to Sao Paulo to look at setting up Vottle in Brazil. And after that the next destination will be Eastern Europe, Ukraine to be specific. With all the current challenges in South Africa a fire has been lit under our asses and it is go go go.

I spent some again in Eastern Europe over the Christmas period. I was in Kiev and it was mind blowing! I have been to many different places in Eastern Europe and I have come to some conclusions. It is an exciting place, filled with opportunity, but it also has it idiosyncrasies. In my view, there is a lot they don't get yet. For example, they are polite to tourists and customers because that is what the text book says. My take on Ukraine, for example, is that a deal is a deal - you give them money, they hand over goods. The smile is not part of the deal. They do smile, because someone told them it is the correct behaviour but I am not sure they know the fundamental reason for doing so. This is why things like business class and economy class are so curious. Again, in my view, their interpretation is that business class is a better experience, but, this does not mean that economy has to be a bad experience. In other words, they would purposefully treat economy class badly simply to make business class feel better because they don't really have a physical differentiation when it comes to a short haul flight, for example, like the one between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I experienced this a few years back, when I was made to stand on the runway for 15 minutes when it was minus 40 outside, simply because I was not in business class.

This December, in Kiev, we went to this fancy restaurant and when the bill came our host pulled out this card that gave us a 20% discount. I didn't think much of at it at the time. Then, a few nights later we go to another restaurant and before we pay our same new friend says "Hang on, let me pull out my discount card". Again, I thought nothing of it, until I noticed it was a different card. And then I learnt that he had a different card for each restaurant. I then asked him how many cards he had like that, and I was curious as to where he puts them all. No wonder they have those long coats in Russia; they need deep pockets to store all those cards. Seriously, the guy could open up a bridge club he had so many cards. So why don’t they all pull together and have one card for say, a dozen restaurants?

If you think London is expensive, then wait until you get to Moscow - if you have to go for a dinner meeting and it is your turn to pay then call in sick - trust me, if you get the bill you are gonna call in sick for real.

It certainly is exciting in the new world, but it is also can be strange and unfamiliar. I am sure within a few generations their mechanical gestures will become natural, and perhaps their obsession with the "brands" will also diminish, but then, perhaps also Eskom will get back the power. Who knows.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Monday, 21 January 2008

I want it now, and I want it all

I discovered the coolest site last year. And now, with all the power cuts and crazy things going on in SA of late, I am using this cool new discovery more and more. The site is - with all the tension of late, and with the tough mood in our land this year, I have been taking the edge off by getting stuck in to some lekker new gadgets from WantItAll.

If you have not seen this site before then check it out. I ordered a laser pointer that gives you a shock (it is battery operated so Eskom can't take away my fun) and I have been having a jol with it. What a great prank. Press one button and a laser shines out, but, press the other button and zap!

We all need to laugh more in these stressful times. WantItAll is perfect for when it comes to taking our minds off the current kak.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

I have the Sheds!!

by Justin Spratt

I am an Australian living in South Africa and have been doing so fulltime for the last 4 years. I guess people would qualify me as one of the few "skilled" people to moving to South Africa – the complaints about South Africa are usually followed by an exodus out of this beautiful country. I love this country and have no plans to return to Sydney, where I was brought up... well, I didn’t until last week.

Euphemistically called "load shedding", power cuts have been afflicting South Africans for over a year now. But nothing warned us citizens of the Tsunami of Darkness that swept through greater Johannesburg and much of the country last week.

For four days last week I had three, 2.5 hours of zero electricity - both morning, lunch and night-time peak times affected... for two of the remaining three days there have been "only" two blackouts per down.

Clearly this if far from acceptable and hardly befitting the economic power house of Africa that Johannesburg and South Africa call themselves; a city that boats first world banking and technology infrastructure.

See by-line!

For years we have been complaining about the monopolistic malevolence of Telkom for keeping broadband prices at a thousand times higher than the cheapest in the world... how ironic this appears to be now?

The state of affairs is anything but amusing however. There has been very little communication from the inept power supplier Eskom, and none of it useful and all of it post-fact. We read now that we need to reduce our national consumption of power by 20%... Why are we only hearing about this now? Where is the pre-emptive communication by our government officials asking for our help and warning the smaller businesses to prepare for it? Or asking for our understanding and detailing the situation?

I am not sure how effective either of these institutions is, but both the South African Human Rights Commission and the Public Prosecutor are asking serious questions. Let us hope they get some answers.

And it is not just the electrification of the country. The power is merely the icing on the cake. Mbeki has taken this country backward, favouring spending his time being an "African Visionary" (read: engaging in Machiavellian pursuits to thwart Zuma, someone so tarnished, possibly corrupt and also inept, yet vastly more popular than he!). The policing is in a shambles at the moment – strange, because it is kind of hard to believe it could have got any worse with one of the worst crime rates in the world.

I understand that there were several geo-political machinations that helped exacerbate the current crisis, not least of which the moth-balling of nuclear energy production. I also realise that pre-1994 policy didn’t factor in a large chunk of the population - or at least, not with an urgency. But nothing can excuse the last 13 years of mismanagement, and especially not the last 9 years of Mbeki's "government". Nothing can excuse the lack of national response and communication to the citizens that pay the salaries of these so-called providers of basic human needs.

Cosatu (ironically) sums it up best…

Eskom was not to blame for the crisis. "They warned the government years ago that they needed money to invest in new power stations, and applied to the government for this. "But the government refused to provide the money, which President [Thabo] Mbeki has now admitted and apologised for," said Craven.

Too little to late for Mbeki as more cuts are expected in the coming week. Here’s wishing for some new, younger leadership to keep this country on the road to reaching its potential. In spite of all of this, I am still absolutely passionate about South Africa and it is going to take a great deal more pain to make me leave.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Boys just wanna have fun

Boys really do just wanna have fun. Girls too. And I am not talking about over-grown kids (like me). I am talking about real boys and girls. The kids of today have serious “to do” lists. Everyone wants their child to be the next Tiger Woods or Bill Gates. No wonder there is huge pressure on our youth. When I was young I used to ride my bike for hours, I would play with Lego (I actually just got set no. 8 and it is awesome) and I would play cops and robbers with my friends. Oh yes, I also used to love my army men. The kids of today are so wired. Literally and figuratively. With cellphones, beepers, pagers and e-mail - the kids of today get so little carefree time.

I have been listening to the parents who work in our organization. I have heard them worry out loud at how their kids watch too much television. I keep on seeing kids in shopping malls on cellphones instead of playing in the park. Is it not cool to play in the park any more? Don’t people spend time in the sun anymore? Are we all slaves to technology? Where are our future leaders going to come from if no one knows how to listen and interact?

There is so much pressure for kids to grow up fast. And what is the goal here? When your kid becomes financially independent at age 25 then you want him or her to become a kid again. This just does not make sense. Being childish and being a kid are two different things. And that is what is going to happen – we are going to have a new generation of very immature over-achievers coming into the world and real leadership is going to be sadly missed.

All this technology at such a young age is so disempowering. Cellphones are disempowering people. Just a decade ago people used to make decisions. And now we have to get on our phone and make that call that goes “What must I do?” Hey, what you must do is switch that damn thing off and make up your own mind. And if you are a kid you shouldn’t even own a cellphone. All this technology is promoting to many control freaks. And people inherently are not strong. These technologies play right into our weaknesses.

So, what's with this law that does not allow you to drive while talking on your cellphone? Actually, I saw the most peculiar thing the other day. There was another power outage and all the traffic lights were out and the traffic was a nightmare. And, as usual, you don't see one traffic cop at an intersection trying to get the flow right. But, what I did see was a bunch of cops parking off at a speed trap. Who was speeding? It took me 2 hours to drive 6 kilometers the other day. I wish I was speeding! Hang, where was I? Oh yes, the cellphone in the car thing. Hey, if you think that the only thing this leads to is car accidents then you are wrong. That is the least of it. I think someone should have to apply for a cellphone in the same way you apply for citizenship. Ok ok, I got a bit carried away. But all this technology can make you a little crazy. Just think about it. Not that long ago we never had cellphones or e-mail all over the place. When we went out for a jol at night we went to one place and for better or worse we stayed there. The time we spent there was all about quality. We spent real time and it gave us the opportunity to build better relationships. In these quantitative times we go out and then the cellphone goes off, and, “Oh, the party is bigger over there … we are on our way.” And this can go on all night. So the result is that we land up going to a dozen places in one night and we spend more time driving, parking, stressing, phoning, messaging and zero time building relationships. No one will ever win at this game because we actually land up going nowhere. Perhaps the winner is the person who goes to the most places in one night. Kids especially should not be going out to parties with cellphones. No wonder our youth are so stressed. Let them spend time getting to know the other people at the party. Let them use their imaginations. Let them be creative. And don’t tell me that parents worry about their kids and therefore they need to have cellphones with them. I was a kid once and I never had a phone with me 24 hours a day. I turned out ok (I think). And so it went for generations before me. I can’t believe how overly neurotic we have all become. It is as if all these technologies have conspired against us.

Albert Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. This is the most insightful thing I have ever heard. The only way to exercise our imaginations is to spend quality time in situations where we are forced to be creative and where we our forced to make decisions. Perhaps “forced” is not the right word here. It should be a pleasure. Sharing ideas with people and building relationships should not be something we are forced to do. Especially kids. Kids should be innocent and carefree to dream of a better world for the next generation. It is the harnessing of innocent, passionate and creative abilities that have led us to the technologies that have trapped us. Ironic.

Kids can invent our future by using their imaginations. But it is adults that must instill values in their kids if we ever are to have a future. And those values are so simple. I hear so many people talk about it so I know the answers are obvious. Let’s all try to let our kids be kids. The first step is to help them to help themselves. Arming your child with a cellphone, laptop, fax, call waiting, etc. at age 10 is really an unimaginative thing to do. Come on. Just think at how wonderful your youth was. We had time to dream. Carefree time. Let the new kids on the block have the same.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Please bring back the crime!

News flash: crime no longer exists. Yes, the crises has been solved. Seriously, just think for a minute: when is the last time you heard a good old fashioned crime story? In this new year we only hear stories about power and electricity nightmares. What is going on? Where has all the crime gone. Don't the bad guys own torches?

Posted by a very stressed out Ronnie Apteker

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The light at the end of the tunnel just went out ... but it will be on again in about 3 hours, we hope

There were another 2 major power outages in Johannesburg today. And it is not acceptable! The cost to the economy must be in the billions, and what really amazes me is that there is no communication about this crises in any of the newspapers. Surely the electricity company should let the public know when the next "power shedding" event will take place so that we can plan and be prepared. And what does it mean "load shedding" or "power shedding". This is really a polite term for a %^$#$#$!$%.

I keep hearing things like "Welcome to Africa". No one seems to be angry; everyone is making jokes about how we are living in the third world and we need to get used to it. This can't be!

This kind of thing is doing more damage than just economic. I am hearing more and more skilled people talk of immigration. The electricity nightmare fuels this sentiment and it is not good for South Africa. Someone made a joke with me this evening, while we were in the dark, talking on the phone, that this is a conspiracy to get whites to leave the country. Well, jokes aside, people are leaving the country, and this power problem is not helping.

The cynics are on the rise, and so is the traffic. It took me 2 hours today to get to a meeting. It used to take 20 minutes. All the traffic lights on the William Nicol were out and there wasn't a policeman in sight. The other joke I keep hearing is that the light in the tunnel just went out. Well, as you can see, the power did come on a short while ago and I am writing this VLOG to let off some steam. This really isn't funny though.

Posted by a very anxious Ronnie Apteker

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Stick 'em up

Why do people go into business? Every new month I ask this question to the group of people who continually join the company I represent. Every month for as long as I can remember anywhere from 15 to 25 people join us on our high-tech mission and they get stuck with me for a morning for some induction. I give everyone a pen and a piece of paper and I ask them this question. I tell everyone that their answer should go something like this "People go into business to …" and I ask them to fill in what comes after that. The reason I ask them to write down their answers as opposed to call it out is because we are talking about a group of people and I don’t want anyone to influence anyone else. I want answers that are simple and honest. I want answers that are unique. And I want people to think for themselves. One last thing, I ask them not to write more than a sentence. I have learnt that the truth in life (the truth about anything) is simple. Honest statements are short. Oops, I got carried away as usual.

Where were we? Oh yes, the one sentence description of life, the universe and everything else. I am sure this does not come as a big surprise but most answers I get go like this. "Money", "Big money", "Wealth", "Profits", and my favourite "Bucks", as in "People go into business to make money." and "People go into business to make big money." and "People go into business to make big bucks" … you get the idea. Now, this type of thinking is totally mainstream, and understandable. We could go on and on as to why we all think like this but I will save that for another VLOG. The short of it is this: just switch on the TV one evening and watch some of the programs on C-NBC or CNN or pick up a Fortune Magazine or whatever and you will be bombarded with stories and images of "get rich quick" and "double your wealth in 1 month on the stock market" and "IPO boom" and "ride the technology wave" and and and … I know you have seen this movie many times. Seriously if you heard a group of people talking about their business and you asked them "Why are you guys in business?" and they answered "To make profits." You would not look at them in weird way. But if they said "We are trying to make a difference in the world." You way say "Yeah, right". Try and tell your bank manager you want a loan so you can start a business that helps people. Yeah, right.

The many answers I seen written down on those little pieces of paper are typically all pretty similar. About 1 in every 10 has something unique like "People go into business to follow a dream and try and change the world for the better." It is these answers that make for great debate. And it is these answers that get people thinking. Stop now if you are a greedy cynic who thinks everything is about money. Stop. Ok, you have been warned. What follows may interrupt your breathing. And it may cause you to change a few things tomorrow. Now you really have been warned. And one last thing, the following is short and simple. Why? Because I believe it is the truth. And also because I need to finish this VLOG in time for the late Sunday night movie.

If business really is all about making money then does it really matter what you do? And in these greedy times it is not just about money. It is about big money; fast money; without any understanding of the "fundamentals"; it is about get-rich-quick. So, surely we should pick the fastest, easiest route then to achieving this end. If it really is all about money then you might as well become a gangster or a drug dealer. Why choose IT or whatever when they are so many easier ways to make money. I can think of so many effortless and quick ways to make big money. I could just go and rob someone and then take the rest of the decade off. But hang on, perhaps you are not so conformable with that job description? Perhaps that does not agree with you? Maybe there is more to it than just making money. Maybe what we do is important after all. Maybe what we like or love doing should be an aspect. Well, it is the most important aspect. We should strive to do work in the world that we have an affinity towards; things we are passionate about; things we believe in. Maybe there is more to it than just making as much money as possible. Maybe it is about trying to do the things that are in your heart - the things you love doing. History has taught us that the most successful ventures are always those that have been a labour of love.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Happy new year Mickey

I recently had my telephone forwarded to my pager which sends a message to my cellphone which then contacts my voice mail which forwards a message to my e-mail so that I can always get back to myself in case I forget to do something and also in case I get an idea a minute ago that I want to think about now. What the hell am I talking about? All this technology is making me dumber with each passing day.

I remember reading a speech a few years ago, that the then chairman of the Disney Corporation gave, where he highlighted the perils of e-mail. While reading it he had my full attention. I used to think that it was perhaps only in IT companies where technology had made people stupid. As Michael Eisner pointed out back then, it is in all companies.

E-mail has commoditized letter writing and has taken the art out of it. We now have too much bad letter writing experiences with terrible spelling and crazy expectations and weird electronic online culture. Eisner stated that not so long ago we used to write real letters and we used to express ourselves articulately and with authority. We can use letter writing to reveal genuine emotion. We can use it to share deep friendship. We can use it to weather the hardships ahead. Eisner described the impact of letters written by great orators. And he went on to say that we should not just emulate the great letter writers of yore. We have options they lacked. We can pick up a phone or get in a car. As important as it is for us to use e-mail well, it is equally important to know when not to use it. We have written, spoken and body language – we must take advantage of them all.

Remember the "I LOVE YOU" bug. The fundamental problem here was not with technology. Eisner is spot on when he says that by bringing some patience and wisdom to this remarkable new communications tool we will truly get all the bugs out and then we will be able to realise its real potential in bringing people together.

How do you know when technology is controlling your life? When you are a slave to your e-mail. When you can’t make a move without your cellphone. We are slaves to technology. Ironic when one considers that technology was meant to free us up. It has tied us down in fact. The fundamental problem again is not with the technology but in the way we behave with respect to it. We need to exert some discipline. And we need to slow down.

We have lost touch with the art of communicating. Just a decade or so ago we were good at team building. These days we have outsourced this function to something called an e-mail list. E-mailing a bunch of people is NOT what relationship building is all about. This is where dysfunctional organisations stem from. Learn how to communicate effectively. Understand how to use technology so that you are always in control and not the other way round. All this e-mailing back and forth … when will it end? We might as well work from a beach (life is a beach isn’t it?). If we send e-mails to celebrate and e-mails to reprimand we don’t need to come into the office. All this e-mail is replacing the need for face-to-face communications. But wait a minute - this can’t be right! And here is my all-time favourite "Sorry, I can’t talk to you right now - I am in a meeting." So why did you answer that stupid thing then? Switch those damn cellphones off! Ok! I am just waiting for someone to say to me, "Hey, I can’t speak right now, I am in the middle of making love." What next? We can get in touch with people all over the world but we can’t seem to get in touch with ourselves. This is the progress paradox again. I have actually seen people fight it out over e-mail, hitting away at those keys, with such tension, only to discover that the two parties involved actually sit about 3 meters apart. Hey, leave those enslaving computers alone and go and speak to each other face-to-face. I am sure that if you look into their eyes you will see that they did not intend to scream and shout when they used upper case letters. Perhaps they just hit the "Caps Lock" key by mistake, ok.

We just don’t get it. I hate those BCCed group e-mails you get wishing you happy New Year etc. We might as well just hire a person to go through our personal phonebook and call each name on the list and say "Ronnie has no time for you so he wanted me to call you and wish you a happy New Year". Talk about a lack of the human touch. We might as well outsource anything that has to do with reaching out and touching people because sending a group e-mail has no substance what so ever.

Yikes, where were we? Oh yes, Eisner went on to to say that a drama coach can tell you that identical words can come across completely different when accompanied by varied intonation and facial expressions. If a person says "you klutz" with a smile over the dinner table it can be endearing. But in the cold cathode-ray light of e-mail the same two words stand there stark and accusingly. The spell checker does not check for anger, emotion, inflection or subtext. Only we can do that. And the most compelling part of Eisner’s comments are that people have always been careless in words and deeds. But the slowness of communications technology used to help protect us from ourselves. Not any more. Think about it the next time you hit that "send" button in anger. I hope one day a mouse called Mickey drops me a line in the old fashioned sense.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker