Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Missing Link gives me a birthday surprise

So, yesterday I arrive at The Missing Link in Bryanston to do a voiceover for one of their presentation projects. (Have I mentioned that these are the dudes you go to if you want an effective, butt-kicking presentation?) As I arrive, I casually mention that it's my birthday. The place erupts in 'Happy birthday Roy' chorussings, and handshakes all round.

I go down the corridor and into the voice booth. I do my stuff, under the able engineering of Bernie, the sound engineer, composer, scriptwriter they have working for them.

I spot a spelling error in the script. An error that would lead to me mispronouncing something. The word is 'cacophony'. I tell them, 'This should be cacaphony, not cacophony.'

Bernie says, 'Are you sure?' He's got a smoke-honed voice, a voice slicked back with the lubrication of experience. 'I've always spelled it "cacophony",' he says.

'I'm positive,' I say. And I do my thang, saying the word my way.

I hang around in the studio waiting for the second voice to complete his piece. I'm hanging around in case I'm needed for something else. And while I'm hanging around, I decide to just check my own pompous assertion. I log onto on my palmtop.

And yeah... you guessed it. I was wrong and Bernie was right.

I wait for a gap in the recording to say, 'Uh, guys... I have to eat several tons of humble pie. The word is "cacophony".'

'No problem,' says Bernie. An old pro. 'Just go back in and do a pick up.'

I go back in, finish up, and wander back to the main part of the Missing Link offices.

When I get there, Andre, the master cappuccinist, reaches for something under his desk, and rises holding a chocolate cake with candles on it. I blow the candles out. They light themselves again. I blow them out. They relight. And again. And again. Andre's pissing himself laughing. So's everyone in the office.

And then Andre hands me a present.

'I don't really know if it's your kind of thing, but I really hope you like it.' Andre explains, 'I phoned Rich...! from the shop to ask if he agreed with the choice, and he said, "You kidding? This is Roy Blumenthal we're talking about," so I hope you like it.'

He hands over a wrapped oblong. Too big for a book. Too big for a cd. Too light for gadgetry. What the hell could it BE???

I open the card first. Various people have written really cool things in it. D'ave has written the coolest. He says, 'Hey Big nose! Happy B-day. You kinda rock.' Heheheh! Rich...! wishes me a superrad year. Andre wishes me awesome days of my life. Sam wishes me happy happy. Thanks dudes!

And I ask Andre if I can open the present.

'Of course,' he says, cutting the chocolate cake, whose candles had to be snuffed by plucking them out and chucking them in water.

I open the present. And it's speech-defying. This awesome company, this most extremely awesome in the entire universe company, have given me the collected movies of Monty Python on DVD! Four movies! Two of them being among my favourite movies! (The Meaning of Life and The Life of Brian, if you must know.)

Yeow. Thanks guys! Brought a tear to my eye, man.

And the cake was pretty moving too.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Macbeth at the Civic -- an amazing production

Turns out last night wasn't the official opening. It was the preview night.

I designed and sewed S's prosthetic pregnancy and delivered it to the stage door just before show time.

And went to see the production. It's sumptuous. Mark Graham, the director, has done an exceptional job. Wow. This production's going to be spoken about for years. Nick Boraine as Macduff is outstanding. And of course... S as Lady Macduff is superb. And my prosthetic pregnancy does a fairly solid job.

Congratulations to everyone at the Actors' Centre! This is an exceptionally gorgeous, amazing production.

If you don't book tickets now, I guarantee you that you will not get the chance. Yesterday at the box office, I was trying to book a seat for late in the run. The entire last week-and-a-half are sold out, and almost every show in between is sold out. Not a single seat available. And it's a fairly capacious auditorium.

Book for this one. It's well worth it.

The Civic Theatre booking office is best. +27 11 877 6800.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day night, and I've just finished an intense scripting session for a client

It's Valentine's Day. Well, night, actually. And I'm sitting in my study typing away, listening to CASSETTE. Awesome South African band. Gonna go far.

S is doing a dress rehearsal of MACBETH at the Civic Theatre in Braamfontein. Opening night is on Wednesday.

[Update: I just realised... Wednesday is tomorrow! I've been thinking today is Monday.]

Yeehaaa! I've got my ticket. And I've even put a note on my palmtop reminding me where I've stashed the ticket. (In the back of my Moleskine, if you're wondering.)

Today was scripting day for a client. I met with Bryce late morning for a brainstorming session. He and I are collaborating on a piece of Flash animation for a company seeking vast amounts of money to launch a new company. It's a delicious project, and we're both having tons of fun. I love this stuff, man.

Of course, doing the scripting DID keep me at Mugg & Bean in Cresta for the better part of a working day today. I sent the draft off, and the client loved it, with some suggested changes. I've just finished implementing some of those changes, and also arguing against certain of them.

What I love about this particular client is that he's amazingly broad-minded and creative in his own right. So he speaks sense when he speaks. And he isn't stuck in his ego. It's very gratifying doing work with a client like this.

So happy Valentine's Day night. I'll be waiting up for S to get home from the theatre. It'll be post-midnight. But I've got a little present for her. And yes... it's something to wear.

(On another tack, Microsoft maverick, Robert Scoble, is doing an experiment to see how the various search engines deal with blogs. He's asked bloggers around the world to put the word 'brrreeeport' into their blogs to see whether or not sites like Google main, Google blog search, Feedster, Technorati, and IceRocket pick up on things.)

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Friday, February 10, 2006

My contradictory impulses re Vodacom's 3G

Apart from the pain, misery and despair of dealing with Vodacom's bureaucracy, the worst thing for me about the 3G nightmare is the contradictory position I find myself in.

On the one hand, I LOVE the mobility of the card. I can use it pretty much anywhere there's cellphone reception (when 3G isn't present, it works on GPRS).

On the other hand, the technology is immature, and I'm spending R600 a month for a service that is essentially a beta test. I should not be paying for this. Their offering is fraught with faults, and their systems are not capable of dealing with users. Why were those two free smss not sent to me? Something must be wrong with the way their technology is working.

My impulse is to get a court to rescind this contract, because I really believe a case can be made against Vodacom for breach of contract. (Incidentally, when the 3G card was launched, all of the advertising claimed it was 'broadband'. For whatever reason, Vodacom removed that brag from all communications, and now simply calls it a 'fast' connection.)

But my other impulse is to keep the service because of the immense freedom it gives me.

In the end, my own needs will win out. I need the mobility. So I'll stick with it. At the same time, I'd really like Vodacom to wake up and fix this service.

(And I know I'm not alone. When I took my machine in to Vodaworld, the 3G guys there told me about a chap who had run up a bill of R40 000 without knowing it. He also didn't receive his warning smss, and he also had to run through hoops. I don't know what the outcome was of his case though.)

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Vodacom 3G upside is that Adina did her best for me, and sorted it out eventually

Lest I sound damningly bleak, I do want to say thank you to Adina for sorting out this mess. It must have been incredibly hard work on her side. Vodacom is a nightmare of bureaucracy. (Or at least ,that's how it appears from the outside.) And she waded through it on my behalf. So thank you, Adina.

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Pain, misery and despair: a tale of Vodacom 3G's miserable customer service

Hmmmm. Where to start on this little tale of woe?

At the beginning, I suppose.

20 December. I phone Vodacom's free service line on 155. I'm doing a routine call to see if I've reached my data cap of 1 gig on my 3G wireless internet service.

The 'dashboard' software tells me I'm sitting at 800 megs, so theoretically, I've got an extra 200 megs to go before I start paying R2 per meg of extra traffic. The dashboard software is notoriously inaccurate, which is why I'm phoning. I'm paranoid about going over the cap. My contract allows me 1 gig of 'free' traffic, for which I pay R600 a month. If I go over that, the costs mount quite quickly.

So eventually an operator answers my call. Checks my account. Stays silent for a moment. Composing himself. 'Sir, your account is sitting at around R3 500 at the moment. You've exceeded your cap.'

This is impossible. I haven't done any heavy surfing. I don't cruise porn sites. I don't do anything illegal. And I have a virus checker on my damn computer to prevent trojans.

What's more, Vodacom promises a free service to all of its 3G customers. They offer a free sms message when a user is approaching the 3G cap. Then a second free sms when that cap is reached. I have not received either of these messages.

I tell this to the operator, who suggests that it might be some kind of mistake. I tell him that it's definitely some kind of mistake, and I want to speak to someone about this urgently. He tells me that he's escalating it to the billing department, and that they'll find out what happened and get back to me the next day.

Naturally, the next day, nobody phones me. I call them. Get another operator. Who gives me the same story. I call every day, and get no joy. They refuse to give me names and telephone numbers. There's simply nobody I can speak to. 'Call 155, sir, and quote your reference number.'

Eventually, the day before Christmas, 24 December, I explode over the phone. 'I refuse to pay this R3 500 bill! I will be cancelling the debit order at my bank. I demand that a decision maker speaks to me right now.'

There's an uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line. The call centre operator says, 'Uh… it's not R3 500, sir. It's a little bit more now.'

'HOW MUCH???' I scream.

He starts laughing. Uncontrollably. 'Uhm. Your bill is already around R8 500, sir.'

I'm floored. 'I will NOT be paying a single cent over the R600 per month that I've signed up for. Where the hell is this traffic coming from???'

He doesn't know. But he suggests that I rush out to Vodaworld to have my computer looked at by one of their data experts.

I go to Vodaworld. They check. They find something that COULD be suspicious. It's an EXE file that seems to be running without any real reason. Could be a trojan virus. We disable the EXE, and the traffic stops. But it later turns out to be an EXE file associated with syncing my Nokia 6600 with my computer, and it really ISN'T causing any traffic. There's NOTHING wrong with my computer.

Christmas comes and goes. I'm phoning once or twice a day to try and get this sorted out. I speak to three different supervisors. One of them finally phones me back. Tells me that he understands my problem. But can't promise that I won't have to pay the full bill. I demand to speak to his superior. He gives me a number. The superior tells me to speak to someone else. I do.

The someone else turns out to be Adina. She promises to look into this and call me back. She doesn't call me back.

The money gets taken from my account without my knowledge.

It's now mid-January.

I blow up. Threaten her with the media. She promises to get back to me. Doesn't. I phone her back. 'Why didn't you phone me back?' I ask.

'I did,' she says. 'But I just got your voice mail.'

'Why didn't you leave a message?'

She can't answer.

'What's happening with this bill?' I ask.

She admits that my argument is correct. She admits that it was completely incorrect that nobody from Vodacom got back to me between December 20 and December 24. She admits that I have taken every action to contain this disaster, and that Vodacom has done almost everything wrong in response. 'Just one thing, though,' she says.

'One thing?' I say.

'I just need to check whether or not Vodacom offers the free sms notifications that you've been talking about.'

'Of course they do! I've made more than 60 calls to you people, and every time I'm on hold your slick voice-over TELLS me about them.'

She's adamant that she has to check this out. And I'm adamant that she'd better pay me my money back.

I phone Jon Gericke at SAfm. He and I have been on the radio together for years. 'Jon,' I say, 'can you do me a favour and call the Vodacom 3G helpline and stay on hold until you hear the bit where they promise to notify users with two free smss? Will you record it for me and send me the mp3?'

He's cool with that. And sends me that file five minutes later. I email it to Adina. She doesn't reply.

About ten phone calls later, she tells me that Vodacom has passed a credit note, and I'll be getting the money back. It's now the end of January. She tells me that she's signed the note, and there are just a few more people who have to sign the note, and then the money will be deposited in my account.

Ten more phone calls. And it's Monday 6 February. She tells me, 'No… we put the money into your account on Friday already. It must just be taking time to show on your statement.'

Yesterday, Wednesday 8 February, the amount is reflected on my statement. Deposited on Tuesday 7 February.

In all this time, almost two months since this crisis happened, I have received only three emails, one from Ocker, a supervisor, who acknowledged that my query was being looked into, and one email from Adina, Ocker's superior, containing only her name and phone number, and another from Adina, acknowledging that she has asked the technical department to look into preventing this from happening again. I have not received any written confirmation about what went wrong, nor of her agreement to pay me back.

I've got my money back. But it cost me around 70 phone calls. Maybe 80. And a load of stomach acid. And a load of badwill. To my mind, Vodacom sucks, and their 3G service, to which I'm signed for two years, is a beta test at best, and I, and thousands of other South Africans, are being forced to pay for their mistakes. And they're making it almost impossible for people to get recourse.

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CASSETTE, a new band fronted by Jon Savage -- awesome

S and I went off to the Bassline in Newtown last weekend with her buddies Paul and Justin Dempsey. Justin's here from London, and he's a pretty hot muso and producer. He'd heard a track by CASSETTE on the radio, and thought they might be the freshest South African band he's heard.

So when we heard they were opening for SQUATTA CAMP, we had to go check em out.

I can say this... CASSETTE is pretty much the best South African band I've heard. I can say this... I'm listening to their first cd, 'Welcome Back to Earth' on repeat, and I'm loving it. They sound a little like late Manic Street Preachers, mixed with a bit of Pulp's attitude. I dig them. Deluxe.

Their stage presence is delicious. Attitude. Angle. Real skill. Jon Savage has a killer voice.

And when he punched the punching bag with Robert Mugabe's face stuck to it while singing 'Get in the Ring', and the bag mashed off the stage and beaned a photographer almost slicing her head open but not quite and he didn't apologise, I thought, 'Hmmm... there's a chance we might actually have a South African rock star here!'

(Unfortunately, his conscience seems to have gotten the better of him, and six songs later he did apologise, but in a low key way. So maybe he CAN be a rock star.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

My first formal mentoring client

I had a meeting yesterday at a coffee-shop in Northgate Shopping Centre with a poet buddy of mine.

He has asked me to be his creativity mentor. He's putting together a one-person show of his poems, and he'd like me to keep him on track.


My new tattoo design -- 'Left Arm -- property of Roy Blumenthal'

When I was very very very young, I got myself a tattoo.

How young? Eleven years old.

It's a complicated story. My mom did the good deed of having two sisters from the Epworth Village Children's Home around on some weekends, as a sort of foster parent. Maggie was about fourteen and Sharon was about sixteen.

Sharon had a boyfriend, Mark, who rode a motor bike and listened to Led Zep.

Mark also had a tattoo. And a needle. And a piece of cotton. And a pot of India Ink.

And an extensive collection of tattoo designs for me to choose from, seeing as he'd allowed me to ride his motorbike round the back lawn, and I'd spotted him hiding Sharon's panties beneath the cushion on the lounge sofa.

So I chose one of the tattoo designs.

His extensive collection ran to exactly TWO designs. A skull smoking a cigarette just didn't seem to make any sense to me, since I hated smoking, cos my mom and dad were both horribly inconsiderate smokers. I chose, instead, an utterly irrelevant Chinese Junkman.

So Mark drew the design on my upper left arm with a ballpoint pen, wound the cotton round the needle tip, dipped the needle in the ink, and began the long job of puncturing my skin. I don't recall it being all that sore. But it took about an hour.

Years later, when I was about seventeen, I tried using a scalpel to remove the tattoo. It didn't work. A few years after that, when I was in first year varsity, studying engineering, I tried again, this time using sandpaper AND a scalpel. And it mostly worked. It now looks like I have a blue-ish birthmark on my arm.

But I'm self-conscious about it, and it represents a hard and horrible childhood. So I'm going to be investing in covering it up. Hence the new design. I figure 'Left Arm -- property of Roy Blumenthal' is quite funny on first viewing, and cynically funny on second viewing, and ridiculously silly on all subsequent viewings. If I've gotta have a tattoo, it might as well be something that'll make me smile for a very long time.

And I reckon this design is neat enough to prevent me from reaching for the sandpaper.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Teaching creativity to a group of ex-prostitutes in Berea, Johannesburg

This morning I rushed off to Steve's Spar in Cresta, grabbed a basket full of brown wrapping paper, some glue, and some wax crayons, and sped through Hillbrow to Berea to the New Life Centre. There I met Linda-Michael, one of the dudes who works at the Hillbrow Community Theatre in Edith Cavell Street.

We met on the Augusto Boal FORUM THEATRE training workshop I participated in last year, and again when a group of us decided to take the training forward. He asked me if I'd like to volunteer to do some work on a project he's involved in, and I said yeah.

So we enter a block of flats, and the security dude eyes us suspicioulsy. What's the white dude doing parking a sports car out on the street in the Bronx? What's he doing entering this building??

Linda says to him, 'New Life Centre, my bra,' and we get nodded through. Some of the buildings in Berea and Hillbrow are having their foyers refurbished to make it impossible for overcrowding to take place. This is one of those places. So we have to be individually scanned through the single-person-only turnstile. Then we're trotting up the stairs carrying the stuff I bought, and a kitbag filled with magazines.

We're in. A huge space with massive windows. Bright. A view of the vast block of flats across the road. And if I crane my neck, I can just see the tail light of my car. The room is filled with laughter. And women. About 35 of them. And three or four children. On one end is the kitchen. The other has five computers and some couches. In the middle, comfie chairs filled with ex- and current-prostitutes.

Babalwa greets us. She's one of the ladies who runs the place. We sit down cross legged on the floor to have a quick briefing session. She says, 'This project helps to rehabilitate women and children who have become involved in selling sex in the human trafficking trade.' The ladies come voluntarily becaue they want out, and the project provides counselling and safe houses for them to live while they rehabilitate. Babalwa says many of the ladies present no longer work as prostitutes, but that some of them are forced to carry on in the business.

One of the things the project does for the women is teach them skills that they can use to get out of prostitution, and into more regular jobs. These are NOT high-class prostitutes earning millions and spending it all on cocaine. These are ordinary women from rural areas who can't read or write, lured to the city and enslaved by hectic guys who probably get them hooked on crack.

I outline what I've prepared for the women, and both Linda and Babalwa like what they're hearing. Of course, I'm improvising as I go, cos I couldn't reallllly prep properly without this briefing session.

We stand, and Linda calls for attention. The women gather in a circle, and we all hold hands. Linda says, 'I have brought a guest with today, and he will be doing some exciting work with us. His name is Roy. And I'll leave him to introduce himself.'

Linda teaches the women at this centre drama, and he often invites guests to facilitate workshops.

The ladies are mostly smiling, but one or two of them look like they're having a rough time in the world. About four of them are around 13 years-old.

I introduce myself. 'I'm a writer, director, producer, and actor. I also lead creativity seminars. Today we're going to have some fun, and learn a little bit about ourselves so that we can become better actors and also improve ourselves.'

So we start off with a nice warmup exercise that I learned in Daniel Buckland's class at the Actors' Centre, and soon everyone's engaged. Then we go into an Augusto Boal game in which pairs of people act as person/mirror partners. Then we go into a game where I ask everyone to make a picture of their inner beauty. They attack the magazines enthusiastically, and soon, everyone's making pictures.

We end my two-hour workshop with another Boal game... one at a time, we each leap into the centre of the circle and announce one word describing our emotional space, accompanied by a physical gesture. Everyone in the circle repeats our word and gesture twice, and the next person goes. Most of the women are excited and joyous. Two or them are quite down. This stuff stirs up hectic emotions.

Babalwa comes up to me after and asks me if I'd like to stay for lunch. I've just finished reading ACID ALEX, so I know that it's extremely rude to refuse food, so I accept, timidly looking over at the kitchen to try and work out what the food might be. If it's offal, I'm going to be in trouble deluxe. But I've accepted, so there's no backing out ot this.

Luckily, the food is a delicious lamb curry with pasta.

Linda says, 'I'd like you to come and do another workshop, Roy. This was excellent.'

One of the ladies overhears him. 'I agree,' she says.

And I say, 'I agree too. I've loved being here.'

And I come home and think about the fact that some of those girls are children. And that some sick bastards regularly pay to have sex with them.