Make my day, phone scammer!

SCAMMERS claiming to be from Microsoft or Windows security or technical support have been around for years. They’re those “helpful” people who phone out of the blue to say your computer is running slowly because it’s full of viruses or “hacking files that put you at high risk”.

Once they’ve gently guided you through several processes on your system, which – horror upon horror – confirm how infected it is, it emerges a warranty has expired, which only a “technician” can renew it for you.

“This is bad. But I can transfer you to a technician who’ll fix it for you for only US$299, which will secure your computer for good.”

The “technician” helps you download software that allows him to control your computer remotely. Thereafter, enter your personal information, including bank details, make a PayPal payment, and voilà, the warranty is renewed, your system is free of problems you never knew you had and your bank account is free of funds you knew, minutes ago, you had. (There are variations of the scam. The results are the same.)

I’ve been getting calls from these scammers periodically for five years. Earlier this year however, they stepped up their campaign and, since then, I’ve been getting as many as two calls a week. I am, it seems, a platinum card carrying customer. The increased attention coincided with frequent ringing of my phone from numbers unknown or withheld. No one answers when I pick up. My theory is the calls come from an automated system that dials random numbers, registers when someone answers and flags the number for Scamsters-R-Us HQ.

I’ve tried several techniques to convince them to stop calling. I regularly hang up immediately. “Please remove me from your database,” I’ve requested politely. I told one I was busy so would immediately I’d give her my bank details to save us both time. “Thank you,” she said happily, before carefully noting my personal information at “Ponzi Bank”. I put on a breathy, Marilyn Monroe voice and told another, “Ooh! A virus! It’s been a while! I know; I’ll show you my bank account details if you show me yours.”

Two weeks ago however, when I heard the familiar whirr of the international connection and, “Hello, this is Andrew Jones from Microsoft security”, I was feeling neither courteous nor funny, and responded with a series of porcine grunts. It didn’t take “Andrew” long to catch on. “F*@k off!” he screamed loudly, before hanging up. This coincided with news from my mother that one of her elderly friends had almost fallen victim to the scam. (She was saved by the fact that her husband “who has the bank details” was out at the time of the call.)

So, the gloves came off and when, a few days later, “Paul Neil of Windows tech support” called, I was ready with a whistle from my days as a hockey coach. I let rip. The calls have stopped and I’m hoping my platinum status has been revoked.

(This article was first published as my technology column in Business Day in 2013.)

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Email for the aged – but not infirm

MY mother is 78-years-old. She was a nurse and farmer’s wife when PC meant neither ‘politically correct’ nor ‘personal computer’ but ‘police constable’. To her, a mouse is a rodent and, if you want to burn a CD, she’ll toss it in the fire for you. Words like ‘hard drive’, ‘RAM’, ‘dongle’ and ‘defrag’ make her giggle, and if you mention ‘broadband’, she’ll suggest you cut back on carbs.

While travelling with her recently, I popped into a couple of coffee shops early one morning looking for Wi-Fi. As we stepped into the third café, she put her hand on my elbow and said, with grave concern, “I do hope they’ll have free wine for you here, Pen.”

For sure, my mother, bless her cotton bowling socks, isn’t much into technology. But, of late, having had limited access to email for a short while, she decided she’d like a laptop. With her family scattered around the country and friends asking for her email and “skaap” addresses, she felt isolated.

So I found her a laptop and modem with a data bundle, set it up for her and sent it to KwaZulu-Natal, where she lives in a small village. She was excited when it arrived and impatient to get going. Unfortunately though, my brothers and their kids weren’t around to help, so she phoned my husband in Cape Town.

Two hours and two beers later, he was still on the phone. They’d succeeded in plugging in the laptop, mouse and modem and had located the ‘on’ button. Entering the password took another half hour and was only achieved once my husband realised she had the mouse (or “clickety thing”) upside down.

“Ok,” chirruped my mother. “Where’s my email? Can I do webcam? Avril says she does it all the time.”

We’d created a Gmail account for her but mastering that would require another two hours and my husband was unravelling.

“Why don’t you play around with it now,” he urged hopefully. “Get to know it. Don’t be afraid. Click on things and see where it takes you.”

That was a week ago. Yesterday, worried about my mother’s frustration, I did some googling, which led me to PawPawMail. It’s an email system designed specifically for seniors who want access only to personal email messages and photographs. It was created by software developer, Jackson Hughes for his email-challenged grandfather, Paw Paw in 2009, and uses large text and buttons and a simple, clear display with no log-ins, links, advertising, newsflashes, likes, pokes or tweets.

Having checked it out, I decided PawPawMail was exactly what my mother needed. But, before I could chat to my brother and ask him to upload it for her, an email pinged into my inbox. It was from my mother!

“How’s this for success?” she wrote. “Trial and error eventually get you there. Gee! I have already found that this computer does things for me automatically. See you on the skaap with the webcam later!”

I hope, if I get to 78, I am as fearless and determined to conquer the technology du jour – regardless of how many “clickety things” are set before me.

This article first appeared in Business Day in March 2013 as my technology column.

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A father, brother and a Datsun bakkie

Datsun bakkieWHEN I was seven, my father put me in the boot of his beige Datsun 1 600 sedan with a three-day-old Jersey bull calf. My job was to keep the animal calm and hold the trunk slightly open so we wouldn’t suffocate during the hour-long trip to the farm.

The calf folded his legs, laid his head on his stomach and slept peacefully the whole way. I nodded off once or twice too, but was rudely awoken when, on the pot-holey sections of the gravel road, the lid crashed down on my head. The calf eventually grew into a stocky, overly confident bull that spent many years either mounting cows or chasing two-legged intruders from his paddock.

When I was 19, my big brother had an off-white Datsun 1 400 bakkie. I had a bicycle. We lived in the same town, where I was studying full-time and he was working and studying part-time. He’s the kindest person I know and once lent me the bakkie. I’m the most despicable sister I know and never returned it to him.

One day, having completed my studies, I threw everything I owned into the back of the bakkie and, powered by Lert Stay Awake tablets left over from exams and the music of Dionne Warwick and Billy Ocean, drove 1 560 kms through the night to Cape Town, which is where I’ve been ever since.

Two years after I’d absconded in the bakkie, my parents decided they’d drive 1 560 kms to Cape Town in my mother’s old sky-blue Datsun 120Y. Their plan was to persuade me to hand over the 1 400 in exchange for the 120Y. But they hadn’t even left the misty valleys of KwaZulu-Natal when, in a particularly foggy area, they hit a cow who’d bunked road sense classes to rest in the middle of the road.

The 120Y crumpled like a used tissue, which gave my father reason to buy my mother a new car. This time, he chose a Toyota Corolla. They immediately resumed their trip to Cape Town but abandoned the idea of returning in the bakkie, which was, by then, slightly misshapen due to a few encounters I’d had over the years.

So I kept the bakkie to ferry myself around Cape Town. On weekends, I’d take my one-eyed Boxer x Ridgeback called Stash (that’s another story) to the beach. It was useful too, for collecting drunken housemates from the Pig ’n Whistle. On particularly riotous nights, it held eight in the back and three up front.

My boyfriend and I installed a mattress and took a week or so to drive to KwaZulu-Natal via the Wild Coast so I could introduce him to my parents. We’d hardly arrived when he and my father had a rip-roaring freedom fighter versus terrorist argument. We drove back to Cape Town and eventually got married.

After a 27-year hiatus, Datsun launches its first new generation car in New Delhi next week. It’ll be available here in 2014. Technologically, the new Datsun will be very different from the 1 400 bakkie. Even so, if I win the lottery, I’ll buy one and drive 1 560 kms back to KwaZulu-Natal and give it to my brother. Or perhaps it’s time to let go.

(This article was first published as one of my Technology etc. columns in Business Day in July 2013.)

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SA invention puts entrepreneurs in charge

(Photographs from

(Photographs from

FROM where I’m standing, entrepreneurship is alive and well. My 18-year-old son is currently cavorting in Cambodia thanks to the money he earned, while at high school, breeding and selling mice to people who keep snakes as pets. Ja. It’s bizarre. Apparently people who love scaly snakes are creeped out by furry little mice. My son cornered the market and made a small fortune, proving mice guys don’t always finish last.

In other rodent-related news, my friend Karen recently extricated herself from the corporate rat race to establish a catering business. She and I spent some time together last week investigating options for her new venture.

In just two days, we encountered, among others: a young man marketing “artisanal spring water, which is perfectly balanced with a pH of seven”; a home-run business that sells catering disposables and food packaging made of recycled, biodegradable materials; a winemaker turned cidermaker, whose range of apple and pear ciders from Elgin are creating something of a fizz in the restaurant trade; and a young woman with a “gourmet and custom cupcakery” that’s hitting the sweet spot with her cupcake concoctions, which include ingredients like chilli chocolate, Piña Colada, beer, peanut butter and jam, white chocolate and caviar, and bacon, cinnamon and maple syrup.

Yes, I know – there are still way too few entrepreneurs in this country. With the rate of unemployment hovering around 25%, we desperately need more self-starters and, in an ideal world, they’d all establish businesses that create loads of jobs for others. But that doesn’t mean we should disregard micro-enterprises or non-employer businesses.

According to a 2008 report by the Department of Trade and Industry, about 36% of South Africa’s SMMEs (Small Medium and Micro Enterprises) are micro-enterprises, which account for 27-34% of total gross domestic product. In other words, millions of South Africans rely on one-person businesses for their livelihood, which makes ideas, products and technology that people can quickly and inexpensively tap into crucial to our economy.

One such technology is the eChaja portable solar-powered charger, which was developed in Ballito near Durban and Matsapha in Swaziland by a company called Mikro Lite. The kit, which is available from the company in a nifty carry bag, comprises a base unit with a solar panel, transformer and six outlets. It also comes with a brightly coloured eChaja-branded vest and cap to identify agents. Weighing less than ten kilograms, the ‘business in a bag’ is easy to transport and can be set up anywhere under the sun to charge customers’ cellphones. No Eskom required.

Handsets are connected to the eChaja via cigarette lighter sockets similar to those found in cars. Each lead is colour-coded and customers receive correspondingly tokens to prevent phones getting mix up. The device features separate timers for each socket, which means agents can set individual times for charging and charge each client accordingly.

The eChaja website ( even provides prospective agents with an online system that calculates how many phones they need to charge per day to cover the initial cost and generate profit.

What’s more, at night, the device can be used to illuminate a 24 Volt DC corn LED bulb, which means it’s not only a great tool for budding entrepreneurs but also…eChaja of the light brigade.

(This article was first published as my technology column in Business Day in April 2013.)

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No mess, no fuss, no needle

(Photograph: Allegro Medical.)

(Photograph: Allegro Medical.)

MY mother was a nurse, by which I mean she doesn’t suffer wimps gladly. And by wimps I mean anyone who complains of discomfort and pain. She made an exception for my father when he lopped the top of his pinkie off with a circular saw and for my grandfather, who, pinned under a tractor, cracked his spine. In all other instances, it’s important to her that one doesn’t “fuss about nothing”.

She was thus disappointed when one of the fruits of her womb – she produced three without a single murmur – turned out to be a wimp.

Yes, I am the family wimp. I yelped when, while playing hockey with a golf ball, said ball lifted and, hurtling at about 150 km/h, stopped, embedded in my face. My nose broke and an eye swelled shut for days. But, really, “let’s not fuss about nothing”. And when I fell off my horse and broke my coccyx…was it really necessary to hobble home sobbing?

But, what saddens my mother most about my wimpishness, is that I’m trypanophobic. That doesn’t mean I’m nervous about trying out saucepans: I fear needles. And by needles I mean those attached to syringes. (Although I’m useless with sewing and knitting needles too.) This upset mother because, as a nurse, she’s concerned about her family’s health. And by concerned I mean she likes to administer injections whenever possible, her favourite being the vitamin B12 jab.

To her delight, my sporty brothers welcome the shots and even request them to boost energy levels. You’d think then, with two boys to puncture and knowing my feebleness, she’d let me be. But no, whenever I came home for the holidays, she’d greet me with the same words: “Pen, you’re looking peaky. Let me give you some vitamin B.”

Usually, I’d distract her and avoid further harassment. But once, I was apparently peakier than ever and she was determined to dispense the jab. For days, she stalked me with a loaded syringe. When I thought she’d given up, I’d spot her prowling through the house, dripping needle in hand. One day, thinking she was out, I let my guard down and, as I searched for my shoes under the bed, she pounced. I passed out as the needle seared into my buttocks.

My mother isn’t the only one who has gone the extra mile to perforate me. An insurance salesman once brought his own nurse to my office in search of blood to test. It took hours of cajoling to extract a drop. I passed out as the needle touched my arm.

But, thanks to students at Makerere University in Uganda, the days of blood letting might be over. Earlier this month, they won US$12,000 in the Microsoft Russia Imagine Cup for their needleless malaria testing application, Matibabu.

The idea came about when team member, Brian Gitta got malaria and needed “repeated costly and invasive prickings”. The app connects a light sensor to a smartphone so users can test themselves for malaria quickly and painlessly. It sends results to doctors via file hosting service SkyDrive, expediting early diagnosis for effective treatment.

Matibabu gets a thumbs-up from me for not requiring a thumb prick. It’s the ultimate “let’s not fuss about nothing” app.

This was first published as my column on Business Day’s Business Life page in July 2013.

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Nosing out new skills and opportunities

Something we can learn about smell from animals: steaming horse dung smells better than dry dung. (Photo:

Something we can learn about smell from animals: steaming horse dung smells better than dry dung. (Photo:

I HAVE been thinking about smells and the role they play in my life a great deal recently for two reasons. A month ago, my optometrist tut-tutted at length about the ongoing deterioration of my eyes. They’ve been pain in the ass (or rather, pain in the eyes) all my life and I’ve long worried that, just as my grandmother was in her 60s, I’ll be virtually blind in a decade or two.

A few days after the eye-eye tut-tut session, I went to a conference at which an olfactory expert – she makes a lot of scents – complained about how little we homo sapiens use our sense of smell to get by these days.

For heaven’s sake, she argued, ‘homo sapiens’ is Latin for ‘wise man’ or ‘knowing man’, and yet we depend almost entirely on our vision and hearing to navigate the world. If we were as smart as we think we are, we’d stop turning our noses up at scents and odours, and develop our olfactory skills to improve our chances of remaining earth’s alleged superior species.

Naturally, I put two and two together; if I fine-tune my aptitude for living a smell-driven life now, I won’t miss my eyesight as much, should it eventually fail me entirely.

I began my training by researching animals (by which I mean my three dogs) and their propensity for sniffing their way through life.

I drew the following conclusions:

• If, when I’m introduced to strangers, I can no longer make out their outstretched hands, it will be acceptable to stick my nose in their crotches instead;
• While out and about, it’s imperative to closely investigate the world’s faecal affairs by placing your nostrils on all specimens deposited in the neighbourhood;
• Steaming horse dung smells better than dry dung. It’s also a good source of fibre, Prof Tim Noakes’s high protein diet notwithstanding;
• When sensing an attractive smell emitted by something like fresh bread or a steaming plate of dinner, olfactory enjoyment is maximised by placing nose, lips and mouth directly on the item, even if you were engaged in any of the previously-mentioned activities moments ago; and
• The best way of bringing the smell of things like dead fish and seagulls, rotting seals and raw sewerage home is by rolling in it.

But I’m not the only one who has been nosing about in the smell department of late. Japanese scientists have developed a new technology to alert people to fire using the smell of the Japanese vegetable, wasabi.

Most people killed in building fires are asleep or elderly and don’t hear alarm signals. Researchers experimented with about 100 smells, including rotten eggs, before settling on the smell of wasabi. The Wasabi Alarm detects smoke and then ejects spicy wasabi, which creates a stinging sensation in the nostrils and wakes people up.

The technology won Harvard University’s Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize, which is a spoof on the Nobel Prize and recognises inventions that “first make people laugh and then make them think”. It also proves that some of the best ideas are not only right under your nose but also sometimes get up your nose too.

(This was first published on Business Day’s Business Life page as my technology column in 2012.)

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Barefaced facts about fonts

IF, in this digital era, we judge one another according to the technological choices we make – i.e. the smartphones, laptops and tablets we own – it follows that we’re going to measure each other’s personality, aptitude and worth against the fonts we use.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, for centuries we’ve happily assumed all kinds things about people we hardly know because of their accents. And, since nowadays we communicate largely in text and technology allows us to select fonts from a myriad of options, it’s inevitable we’ll postulate, generalise and pass judgement on others because of the typefaces they choose.

It’s a serious thing and several recent studies have been conducted into the subject. What’s more, whereas there was a time when companies appointed graphologists to analyse prospective employees’ handwriting to assess their character and suitability for a job, these days they’re looking at candidates’ choice of fonts.

They believe, as journalist Gus Silber asserts, “Fonts speak louder than words”.

So, what does your preference in typeface say about you? Do you go the serif route and choose fonts with rounded edges and/or extra strokes on the top or bottom of characters? Or do you shun embellishment and use only sans serif fonts?

A study conducted by Wichita State University found that fonts provide clues to your personality type, attitude and mood. For example, clean, hardworking sans serif Calibri was found to be most appropriate for business communication. Users, says the study, are “stable and conformist”.

In fact, Calibri is, according to a micro-study I conducted on Twitter, a highly popular choice for email, as are fellow sans serif fonts, Arial, Helvetica and New Century Gothic, which have a similar no-nonsense, unpretentious appeal. They’re minimalist, clean and easy to read on the screen. Researchers say the fonts are “conservative but modern” and users, “professional and serious about their careers”.

However – and this is my own aside (because I use none of the above mentioned typefaces) – many, it seems, use Calibri and Arial because they’re default fonts, which suggests to me users could be unimaginative and even plain lazy.

But back to the facts: Like me, many people write emails in a sans serif font but go for serifs (like Georgia, Cambria and Perpetua) for more creative documents. As communication strategist and author, Sarah Britten puts it, “It’s as though the font influences the writing itself”.

So, what’s my type? Up until now, I used good old Times for my articles and Optima for email. According to researchers at Wichita, my choice of Times means I’m “stable, polite, conformist, formal and practical”. Further studies say I’m “boring, scholarly and play it safe”. And my use of Optima doesn’t bode any better. It’s deemed “a bland, neither here nor there font” and, say the experts, tells the world I have “little character”.

What to do then? Naturally, I set out to track down a font that’ll best express my vibrant personality. I’ve settled on Gigi, which is described as “the sex kitten of the typeface universe”. Studies say it’s “flexible, happy, creative, elegant and cuddly”. So, voilà, I gave myself a facelift and now have a sexy new font. Sure, my documents might be illegible, but at least I’m cool.

(This article was first published in Business Day as my column on the Business Life page in 2012.)

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