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: