Sunday, 2 October 2016

Dutch Pharmacies

I woke up this morning, but one eye didn't. I thought little of it (I never think much after just waking up) and went back to sleep.

About an hour later, the same thing happened again.

"That's strange," I thought, and as any modern individual would do I reached blearily for my phone and took a selfie.

For your well being, I won't post the image here, but maybe I'll use this as an excuse to finally get Instagram and upload it there instead. It was not a pretty sight. From what I could see of the bad picture, my right eyelid was swollen and would only open half way and my forehead looked like my first and last attempt at constructing a balloon animal.

I sent the picture to Dr Dad and asked Dr Google for advice while waiting for a response. Getting medical advice from the internet is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant, so I was fully expecting that the first five results would inform me of likely terminal cancer, but I was surprised to learn that it was probably caused by the mosquitoes that had been bothering me during the night and that the suggested treatment was to take a walk and wait a few hours. Dad seconded the recommendation and added one for antihistamines.

I reluctantly departed my bed and prepared to sample Groningen's pharmacies. I'd been to one before to pick up a package that had failed to find me at home, so after putting on boots and a coat against the morning air (which was whispering "go back to bed, go back to bed" in a fairly persuasive tone) I stepped outside.

I left my bike behind, remembering the 'take a walk' advice, and 20 minutes later I found the place. It was closed. Bloody Europeans and their sensible family-friendly laws, which make so much theoretical sense (families get to spend weekends together) and which are practically inconvenient (businesses are closed). "It is the duty of a business to be open," I thought, and realised that I needed a few more decades of practice if I ever wished to be comparable to Wilde.

After the few seconds delay that my coffee-free brain takes to react to unexpected situations, I opened Google Maps and searched for nearby pharmacies. There were half a dozen or so within walking distance, and I clicked on the nearest one to check its opening hours.

"Closed today"

I tried the next.

"Closed today"

And the next. And the next. And the next.

Finally, there was only one unclicked red dot left on the map. I pressed on that too, with expectations even closer to zero than usual.

"Open 24/7".

Pleasantly surprised, I strolled the kilometer to the obscure part of town that I had not yet come across in previous aimless walkabouts. When I arrived, I was greeted by a bank-like setup with one of those machines whose sole purpose is to print out tickets with numbers on them so that people can queue in a non-linear fashion, and a line of counters protected by reinforced glass. I wondered what the chances were of an imminent hold up, but after looking around for people wearing balaclavas and not seeing any (there was only one other customer) I pressed the friendly red button on the machine and got a piece of dead tree with "103" printed on it for my efforts.

Looking up, I saw a screen with "Currently processing ticket 0. 0 people in queue" or something similar in Dutch (I can't speak Dutch). I inferred that they weren't using the expensive ticket system, and waited in line behind the only other customer.

When he left I approached the counter with a friendly "Hello". I was told to wait for my number to be called, and I then realised that there was in fact another customer, waiting hidden behind a corner, where there were several seats. The pharmacist shuffled papers around importantly for several minutes, and then indicated to the other customer to approach. The screen had not changed.

After another ten minutes or so, the pharmacist closed the counter she was at, opened the counter at the far end of the building, shuffled some more papers around, played a couple of rounds of minesweeper, and then indicated that it was now my turn.

"Hello," I tried again.

She seemed more friendly this time and asked how she could help. The Dutch in general speak English perfectly and are happy to do so at any opportunity, but this pharmacist was the exception to prove the rule. After figuring out what I wanted and why, she looked seemingly at random at one of the shelves behind her. Not finding anything to her fancy, she walked down the row and picked another shelf. She seemed to like these two shelves in particular, out of a choice of dozens, and proceeded to walk up and down in front of me, looking repeatedly at her two chosen shelves. Eventually she returned to the window.

"Do you want something to put on your skin, or do you want to swallow something?" she asked.

I've never taken antihistamines before, but I told her that I assumed the latter.

"Yes," she agreed. "I thought so." And she resumed her pacing and repeated inspection of the two shelves.

After several turns, she returned again, looking bewildered. "Um, I don't know where anything is," she admitted, and waited hesitantly for my advice.

"Neither do I?" I tried. "But no stress. I'm not in a hurry".

"Oh good," she replied. "Because I need to look for it". She waited again.

"Sounds good," I said, wondering if I should offer to try squeeze through the communication hole in the glass to come help.

She resumed her pacing ritual, looking again at the same two shelves, and completed five or six more circuits. I was beginning to wonder how to break her out of the loop, when an older lady appeared from the back, to do some more important shuffling of scrap paper on one of the desks. The two communicated briefly and the older pharmacist came to help out. She immediately found the antihistamines, and the younger pharmacist brought them to the counter for me.

"I got them," she said, triumphantly and with new found confidence.

She scanned them and hesitated, the confidence visibly fading. "There are seven tablets in here. That will be enough for one reaction?" she said, with a lingering question mark, as if undecided about whether she was asking or stating.

"You're the expert," I replied. "But one box sounds good to me."

She pressed more buttons on the computer, and hesitated again. "Unfortunately, there will be a fee?" she asked.

How civilised, I thought. I suppose asking people for money in return for medicine is not common practice around these parts.

"It's one euro and forty cents," she said.

"No problem," I replied, showing her my card to indicate that I was expecting to pay. But she hadn't finished

"... plus seven euro fifty because it's weekend," she continued. "Perhaps you should come back tomorrow? Then it will only be one euro forty".

I repeated what she had said back to her to make sure I hadn't misunderstood. "Seven euro fifty because it's Sunday?" I asked.

"Yes. But if you come back tomorrow, you don't need to pay. And you probably won't even need to come back, because normally the swelling will go away after 24 hours by itself," she said brightly. She was holding the box tantalizingly in front of me. "I think it's much better if I just put this back?" she asked.

I agreed with her that paying the weekend tax was probably not worth it, as the swelling was already decreasing, and left. I instead spent €4 on coffee and and a croissant from a nearby cafe, and contemplated the strangeness of the system while I ate. Why the fee was necessary seemed obvious, considering that it took two highly qualified individuals and a substantial amount of reserved family time to find that box. But there was something ironic about a system that allowed me to get so close to a product and then at the last moment discouraged me from purchasing it. Perhaps it is merely a Dutch flavour of logic to which I am not yet completely accustomed. I cannot deny that it worked out well in the end.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Writing and Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a dying art: no longer seen in letters and literature but now reserved for politicians' lies; no more found in lovers' proposals, but all too frequently plastered across our eyeballs by marketers' banner ads and video campaigns; not now inked into parchment by poets' fountain pens, but only rationed to us in the short phrases found on the tombstones of the dead.

And yet, it isn't difficult: some subtle alliteration, a smattering of repetition -- repetition to reinforce but not to bore; an understanding of rhythm, of emphasis, of flow, of the music of words.

Write and rewrite, listening to each word, each phrase, ensuring it sounds as you wish it to sound, that it flows exactly as it ought to flow, that pauses and punctuation assist and do not impede your prose as it penetrates your reader's mind.

Rhetoric is also a science: it can be studied, practiced, and perhaps perfected. But it is in essence an art. It can be imitated, or even created, without being fully understood. You can memorize the definitions for Zeugma, Merism and Polyptoton, and precisely apply them wherever you calculate to be most appropriate, but this is not necessary nor preferred. If you write and edit until your page sparks and swims and floats and flares you will find these rhetoric devices appearing, seemingly by accident rather than design.

But beware, for rhetoric is powerful. It can make people happy, it can make them confused. It can change their ideas and beliefs, alter their characters, modify their lives in irrevocable ways. You should not practice rhetoric without flirting with ethics because people's minds are more easily swayed through language than through scientific fact, and it can be difficult not to use persuasive ability for personal gain.

Viva language. Viva rhetoric. Viva.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Shadow of the Wind

Have you found a book that you enjoyed so much that you read it in a single day, or even in a single sitting? Every page of words is a page of happiness, of learning, of beautiful language, and relatable experiences, and even if you decide to stop for a break, or have other obligations in the 'real world', you soon guiltily retreat back into the new-found world for just one more chapter -- and then just one more.

Many books fall into this category: The Lord of the Rings, of course, even on a second or third or fourth reading; Frank McCourt's biographical trilogy of Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man; everything by Wilde, and some of Asimov's works, for example. For me, at any rate. I'm sure your list is different, and rightly so.

And then there are books that are the opposite. You don't want to finish them, because even happy endings are sad. Yes, there are always more books; yes, you can re-read books, but the experience of reading a book for the first time and having the realisation that this one is a special one slowly seep through you like the warmth of a spiked coffee on a frosty evening is all too rare. Of knowing that time will pass, and lots of it, before another discovery like this is made, but that just this one book will alter your life in a small way forever. You still want to devour these books; to tear through the pages as fast as your eyes and mind will allow, gaining the treasures within for your own, while also leaving them intact for the next reader. You want this just as much as you did for the other exceptional books, maybe even more, but - something makes you hold back. Something tells you to take this one slowly, to savour every moment of it, knowing it might be the last for a while.

Read the title.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

FNB, again

I am not a fan of banks. Long queues, lots of red tape, and ridiculous fees for a simple service. They're one of life's unpleasant necessities. But sometimes they are bad enough to be funny, even if the laughter is a bit pained.

It also always amuses me when big corporations (especially bank) try to justify exorbitant fees by claiming that expenses are high.

Below, an email I received from FNB after I ranted on Twitter about the R80 replacement fee for a worn out debit card, followed by my reply. I had to grit my teeth and delete the comments I wanted to make about Mark's (lack of) grammar.

Hi Gareth
I am in receipt of your complaint and have tried to phone you twice today to no avail.
Although I am not included in the costing of a plastic card, I do think I can add some light to the matter with regards to why it is more expensive than you would think.
Plastic as a commodity is very cheap but the extrusion of the plastic is not the only cost that is taken into account.
The card is branded, the card is embossed, the card has a microchip and magstrip on it all of which require certain machinery to produce or manufacture.
The card would then have to be sorted and posted to the collection point where a consultant will be in attendance to serve you all these people are salaried.
All the above processes will have a certain amount of security requirements.
Real savings comes with volume but each card is specific to a person and thus unique.
The Bank is a profit driven organisation but we will not overly profit on items such as this and in most instances cost of this nature are aligned to other Banks to avoid any discrepancies when comparrisons are made.  
I trust that this satisfies your enquiry, if not please feel free to respond accordingly.
We have closed the complaint ref no 522549


Dear Mark,

Thank you so much for taking the time to "close" my complaint.

1) The card was not lost or damaged thorough my negligence. It wore out through normal usage (being kept in a wallet, and swiped up to several times a day in standard POS devices, as well as being inserted as necessary into FNB ATMs). Surely it is not unreasonable to ask that FNB a) give customers better quality cards that last until their due replacement time; or, b) reduce the standard replacement time to the minimum life-span of a card?

2) The card in question was a standard non-embossed, non-chip debit card. These are kept in quantity at each branch and handed out as necessary. I was quite amused by your convoluted explanation of the procedures which justify the R80 fee, as almost all of them (embossing, microchipping, personalized transportation, and consultation) were irrelevant. Of course, if it were indeed an embossed, chip card that was relevant, I would fully understand. Students these days have always more funds at their disposal, while banks struggle more with each blip in our troubled economy. If cards are indeed that expensive to produce, I agree that this cost should be footed by the students of our society, and not the banks. (I had a cursory glance at FNB's financial statements for 2013, and see that profits only just hit R10 000 000 000. With so few zeros, we can see that times are indeed tough.)

3) I was further amused by your acknowledgement that FNB is squeezing further profits from its customers through this fee (Your email states, "we will not overly profit on items such as this" [emphasis added.], which implies that some profit is indeed being eked out). There is absolutely no reason why FNB should be making any profit in this area, as they are not a card manufacturer or a plastic extrusion corporation.

4) You mention that costs are "aligned to other banks". I have received chip, embossed cards, customized with my name, and supposedly carrying all of the expenses you mention in your email, from other banks without being charged a single cent. This made me happy. In my humble opinion, happy customers are something FNB should also aim to obtain (to my knowledge this other bank I speak of has many). My current happiness has been substantially lowered by your attitude in this regard.

5) Thank you for taking the time to call me. I am truly sorry that I was unavailable to listen in person to the fascinating details on how expensive debit cards are to produce. 

Please note that his matter has been resolved. After a lengthy queuing session, followed by another lengthy queuing session, followed by a lengthy discussion with one of the friendly Grahamstown FNB consultants, who in turn disappeared for a quarter of an hour to have further lengthy discussions with a superior, I was given a free replacement card. Banks are pleasant places to spend copious amounts of time, and therefore it will be no big issue should I have to go through the same procedure next time I have an FNB card that wears out before its expiry date. And better still, should I not have the required copious time at my disposal, I have been advised that opening a new account at a different bank is actually a remarkably (or at least relatively) speedy procedure, and even comes with the (highly expensive) bit of plastic needed to use the account, at no extra charge.

Yours faithfully,
Gareth Dwyer

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Oscar Wilde and Jane Goodall

Today I read The Importance of Being Ernest yet again and also saw Jane Goodall give a lecture. Oscar (yes, we're on first name terms) says nothing in a delightfully clever way, Jane does the opposite.

JACKFor heaven's sake, don't try to be cynical. It's perfectly easy to be cynical.
ALGERNONMy dear fellow, it isn't easy to be anything nowadays. There's such a lot of beastly competition about. 

So many layers that you're not actually sure what Oscar's views on cynicism actually are, and best of all it doesn't matter. You may not like him minister but you can't deny, Oscar Wilde's got s t y l e.

And Jane just talks about the environment, about hope, about cruelty to animals. About all those things that people who generally irritate me talk about. Because it's obvious that they don't really care, they're just pretending to care because it's fashionable to care, or because they're insecure and it gives them something to hold onto, or because they think it'll get them money (see how easy cynicism is). Jane was introduced by the usual academic bores who said the correct and expected things in the correct and expected places: they told us how grateful we should be, they recited her Wikipedia article to us, and they thanked her. They used up all the adjectives in their vocabulary, and enough superlatives to feed a large family, or even a hobbit, for a month. I began to yawn and my mind wondered if a security company using concepts from a Panopticon could be successful (don't watch all houses, but just make sure that no-one knows which houses you are watching).

Then Jane took the stage, and within minutes had won over the entire audience by capturing the Vice Chancellor of UCT and making him act as a male chimpanzee, while she acted as a female chimpanzee who was attracted to him. Then she told us about her mother, about her trip to Africa, her experiences with animals who showed more signs of intelligence than her Cambridge professors, and about her charities. She told us why she still held onto hope when so many had left hope to die a horrible death, worthy of George R R Martin. She spoke without cliches, without using adjectives as crutches, without superlatives. She didn't tell us that her incredible, phenomenal, fantastic mother was uniquely exceptional, inspirational and admirable. She told us two simple stories which showed us the person who her mother was. She spoke well, she spoke sincerely, and most importantly of all, she spoke entertainingly. She shared her knowledge through the sparkle in her eyes as well as through the words she spoke.

It's the second time that I've been to a lecture and haven't found being cynical as easy as Oscar claims it to be. The first was when Sam Vice spoke about being cynical in the new South Africa. Jane's definitely not worried about being fashionable, she doesn't come across as insecure, and she doesn't seem to care much about money - when she talks, ulterior motives don't scream their lungs out, don't drown out her words as they do for most public speakers.

And best of all, she brings stories of hope from China, one of the countries which so many people choose to focus their cynicism on. China, everyone knows, is the land of exploitation and pollution and animal cruelty, and yet apparently they are among the largest adopters of her Roots & Shoots campaign. The country that kills its children in factories to make money has now banned shark fin soup to balance the scales.

And as the first cynicism I've felt in the last two hours crept into the last sentence, it's time to end.

You can watch a video recording of the lecture here:

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Homeward bound

Dubai International Airport is big. So big, that I'm not sure how they fit it all inside Dubai. After landing, there's what feels like a 45 minute bus trip because the plane parked so far away from the terminal. Then there's what helpful signboards call an "estimated 10 minute walk" to Gate A. The ten minute walk ends at an inside station for a high-speed train. The train's sole purpose in life is to travel back and forth between Gate A and Gate B of Dubai Airport (and some people think that a human life is monotonous!) The train takes several minutes to arrive, and after a another several minute journey, I'm getting close. Gate A24, here we come. Signs and shops, and signs, and more signs, and more shops. People going to the other A gates are directed down separate passageways, until it's just me following signs towards an ever decreasing range of numbers. Eventually A24 has its very own sign, another passage, some more shops, more signs, and I've found my gate. The plane landed before 11 PM and midnight came and left again a while ago. It's taken me almost an hour and half to get from one part of the airport to another. I could have landed in PE and driven to Grahamstown in the same time, except now I'm not only just still in the same city, but I'm still in the airport of the same city.

The five-and-a-bit hour flight from Vienna to Dubai was less painful than I was expecting (see, pessimism does pay off), apart from the fact that my usual luck of getting two seats for long flights failed me, and my neighbour exuded terrible karma and worse breath. Sitting at the emergency exit and having a bit of leg room makes a huge difference. I'm not looking forward to the eight-plus hour flight coming up after a few hours' wait, but here's to using up some optimism and hoping that they have the same movie selection so that I can finish off the Bourne films.

My S3 died several weeks ago, hence the general lack of updates and photos, in case anyone missed them. You'll have to catch up with me in person some time if you want to hear about the parts of my trip which were meant to be covered below, but somehow never made it past the mental drawing-board.

If you're in Grahamstown, or are going to be, then see you soon!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Boring Essays and Interesting Adjectives

Deadlines are approaching again, and procrastination methods grow thin; and so I turn yet again to my trusty blog for distraction.

My other primary source of procrastination at the moment is Mark Forsyth's new book "The Elements of Eloquence". It's brilliant. My favourite part so far has been about Tolkien's "Green Great Dragon", which featured in one of his earliest stories, written while he was a child. His mother corrected him and said it had to be a "Great Green Dragon", which discouraged Tolkien so much that we are lucky that The Lord of the Rings exists. Forsyth explains why one doesn't speak of Green Great Dragons:
"The reason for Tolkien's mistake, since you ask, is that adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac. It's an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can't exist."
And at the moment that seems far more interesting than whether social sciences and theoretical sciences can all fit under some deductive nominological covering laws, or whether rational and theoretical explanations are fundamentally different, or whether the word cause has three unrelated meanings (I think some of those things are relevant to my essay).

I'm also wondering whether there exist any Philosophers who don't make complete fools of themselves when trying to talk about Mathematics and Science; and if they are out there somewhere, whether their numbers are smaller than the Mathematicians and Scientists who can talk about Philosophy without making a fool of themselves. If one more Philosopher uses the word 'quantum physics' in serious argument, I may give up all hope. Hearing someone from the Royal Institute of Philosophy try to talk about Turing machines earlier this month almost left me in need of psychological help.

In case you were hoping news about General Life, with optional comma splices: It's getting cold, I saw hail and snow, I'm getting tired of my very creepy flat mates watching me intently while I prepare food without speaking even when spoken to, the old milk in the communal fridge has come alive and is about to declare war on humanity, but no-one is brave enough to claim responsibility for leaving it there or to remove it, someone finally got tired of the mound of unwashed dishes and threw them all away, leaving lots of people a bit upset, I went to Hanley today to try get my phone fixed, and came to the conclusion that this part of England is dead (the shops were closed, the bars were closed, the restaurants were empty, and the conclusion we made about the one open nightclub was that the only thing more undesirable than standing in the queue to get in would be the possibility of going in), my sleep cycle is now almost completely reversed, which makes even 11 A.M. lectures unpleasant, luckily I have Wednesdays and Thursdays completely free, not to mention coffee, to recover, time is flying faster and faster (leaving in a month? didn't I just arrive?), it turns out that there are some English people at Keele too (sometimes it seems like they're the minority here), I think that's enough for now, maybe more soon, otherwise see Twitter and Facebook.