Thursday, July 25, 2013

Travel Woes...

A letter just sent to ACSA--Airport Company of South Africa...

Last week I flew from Lanseria to Cape Town on Thursday and back on Sunday. My experience with your baggage handling was extremely poor.

En route to Cape Town, my checked toiletries bag was opened and presumably searched. The cable ties securing the zippers were not replaced and the zippers came partly open during transit. When I arrived at my destination I discovered that a jar of face cream valued at more than R500 [$50 USD] had been opened and when it was returned to the bag, the lid was not fully secured. It was dumb luck that I was standing on a carpeted surface when I took the jar from the bag and the glass jar came away from the lid and fell to the ground.

When I returned home I found that my other bag had been searched and this time the carelessness of your employees caused a financial loss. I am diabetic and I carry with me a blood glucose monitor that uses testing strips. I carry the monitor with me, but I packed an extra container of test strips in my checked luggage. I put it in a small zipped bag with some make up. When I opened the bag at home I discovered that the lid (which is supposed to be attached to the bottle by a strip of plastic) had been completely torn off the container and the entire contents of the bottle--25 test strips--were scattered around the bag. Not only did your employees destroy the container, their action contaminated test strips and made them unusable.

Now, the R150 that bottle of strips cost is not the real problem...the real problem is that this could have resulted in a life-threatening situation. If I had had to depend on those strips to check my blood glucose in an emergency, I would not have been able to do so because your ham-handed employee damaged them. A crashing diabetic can die...and without those test strips, that is the situation your company can cause one day if your employees do this as a matter of course.

I am not asking for compensation for my loss, but I am asking that you regularly inform--and remind--your employees of the importance of putting things back the way they found them: not breaking or damaging containers, putting lids back on snugly, resecuring bags that were closed with cable ties (surely you can supply your searchers with cable ties so that bags don't come unzipped en route?). I was fortunate enough not to need that extra bottle of test strips, but the next diabetic your employees do this to may not be so fortunate and he could die as a result of not having his medical needs met due to the carelessness of your staff.

Please familiarize your staff with common medical devices such as asthma inhalers and diabetic products such as test strips, insulin pens, needles, lancets and cartridges. The next person who opens his luggage and finds your staff has destroyed an essential medical product may not be so lucky as I was and survive it,


Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Pick n Pay has a new CEO...but does he have a clue?

...earnings per share from continuing operations are 31% lower. The dividend is down by 36%...

 The new CEO, Richard Brasher, has been on the job for just 2 months. Last week he was a guest on a popular local finance program (click link above for a transcript), speaking of his plan to turn the slowly sinking giant around. But I am not sure he really understands the reason South African shoppers are abandoning his supermarket chain in favour of the competitors. Below is a copy of the email I sent to him this afternoon...

Dear Mr. Brasher:

Last week I heard you speak on MoneyWeb on Radio 702. I thought you'd like to know why I stopped shopping at Pick n Pay and why my venture into a store today only firmed my resolve.

I live near the Woodmead Pick n Pay Hyper, but have also done considerable shopping at the Morning Glen, Morning View, Sunninghill, Northgate and Douglasdale stores. With the exception of the issues with the pharmacy, which is limited to the Woodmead store, my remarks apply to all of the Pick n Pay stores I have patronized.

The ineptitude of your pharmacy nearly killed my husband. He is diabetic and takes numerous medications for that condition as well as hypertension and hyperlipidemia. He picked up a set of his repeat meds from your pharmacy on one occasion last year and the pharmacy had neglected to put in his blood pressure meds. Because he takes so many meds, he did not realize at first that one of them was missing and so he went for more than a week without his blood pressure meds. He found out when he started having symptoms of dizziness and laboured breathing and I took him to the hospital where they discovered his blood pressure was at stroke level. He didn't receive his meds but you can bet our medical aid was billed for them as well as the emergency room visit necessitated by your pharmacy's deplorable oversight. While this was by far the worst incident of the pharmacy's ineptitude, it was far from the only one. Almost every month your pharmacy was either out of stock on such staples as insulin pens and needles and commonly prescribed meds (I can understand not having a stock of rarely prescribed meds, but insulin? glucophage? blood pressure meds? statins?). What is even worse than being out of stock is having to count my meds upon receiving them because your pharmacy chronically shorted me on my meds. The prescription would call for 30 tablets, the pharmacy would either short me a whole card or fail to give me a partial card to make up the whole 30. So, I would bring in a prescription for 30 tablets and receive 28, which is neither what the doctor prescribed nor what our medical aid paid for. After numerous complaints to the pharmacy manager and even the store manager...which garnered us apologies and promises but no action or improvement...we have taken our medication business to your competitors. We have not used your pharmacy for nearly six months now: between Pharmacy Direct and DisChem, our needs are handled adequately and Pick n Pay has lost thousands of rand per month in revenue to the pharmacy with our move elsewhere. We are both diabetic, hypertensive and hyperlipidemic--I take five different drugs plus my insulin, my husband takes even more than I do: we are walking wallets when it comes to revenue from medications and your pharmacy drove us away with its lackadaisical attitude regarding our health and even our lives.

I have pretty much switched to Woolworths for my grocery shopping and to Makro for cleaning and pet supplies. But there are always a few things they don't carry and so I periodically pop into a Pick n Pay for those items. I did so this morning and as a result of my visit, have decided to simply skip Pick n Pay from now on and just stop in at Spar or Checkers for those items. Why? Because you have either discontinued items I normally buy or you cannot seem to keep them in stock. Coupled with the unappetizing condition of your fresh produce, I just cannot see why I should waste my time even going to a Pick n Pay because, based on several years of increasingly dismal experiences with your stores, I am just wasting time and energy going there. This morning I stopped in for just two items, items I have been purchasing from Pick n Pay for nearly ten years, items I have not seen on the shelves for the last couple of months: Kraft Miracle Whip and netted bags of rawhide "bones" for my little dogs. In the past I have seen your stores be out of stock for months (literally) of Pick n Pay's own brand of kidney beans, crush tomatoes and tomato puree. At one time you carried Dairy Belle Colchester cheese in slices...I haven't seen it in years, now. At one time you carried Maruchan Cup-of-Soup but it has probably been a year since I've seen it: you substituted an inferior self-branded product that is more difficult to use and less tasty (the noodles taste like cardboard) and you don't bother to even keep that adequately stocked, leaving only the Maggi brand well stocked, which tastes disgusting.

I don't know if your employees intentionally dissemble to the customers, but I recall coming into a Pick n Pay store and finding no fresh chicken. This happened several weekends in a row and finally somebody taped a sheet of paper to the empty section saying that there was a "shortage of chickens." Really? Then why did Woolies and Spar have them? I have gone to multiple Pick n Pay stores looking for frozen one store someone had taped a similar sign inside the freezer...and yet I could find frozen peas at a Spar and Woolies. And who is the person responsible for scheduling bread deliveries? Maybe someone should tell him/her that weekends tend to be busier than weekdays and he should order extra for the weekend shopping...I cannot tell you how many times I have walked into a Pick n Pay store on a Sunday for bread and the shelves are virtually empty.
I am appalled when I walk in the store and find entire shelves empty. I was in the pet food aisle this morning and literally saw a dozen or more metres of actually empty shelves. The various treats I regularly buy for my dogs (four of them--that is a lot of biscuits) were out of stock. I have seen your stores fail to stock some items, like Beeno Chocolate-coated biscuits, Beeno Chocolate Drops, and Beeno Yoghurt drops for months--no exaggeration--at a time. It has been a month since I have seen Dentastix (the kind with the green filling) in your stores. I went to the pasta aisle this morning and found empty shelves there. I once waited eight weeks for the Woodmead store to restock beans and dishwasher rinse aid...both store brand...and finally had to approach a manager to find out if the items had been discontinued. On my subsequent visit I inquired as to the reason for the lack of stock (as the items had been restocked in the intervening week) and was told that the individual responsible for monitoring and reordering stock had simply failed to place the order: the system reflected the lack of stock but the operator simply did not reorder. Guess what? Within the month those shelves were empty again.

The worst thing about the empty shelves is that it looks to me like it is a part of your business plan. When I first came to South Africa ten years ago and walked into a Pick n Pay for the first time, I saw a card on the shelf in the place boxes of breakfast cereal should be. That card was professionally printed, not something someone ran off on the computer to deal with an unexpected shortage. It was a professionally printed "tent" card intended to stand in the empty shelf and printed on it was something to the effect of "Oops! We are out of this product____________. " In other words, the unstocked shelf issue is so common to your stores that you spend money to have "Screw you, go buy it from our competitors" cards printed up to put on those empty stretches of shelves.

Why should I shop in your stores? The stuff I want to buy is not there...we are down to TWO products I relied on Pick n Pay to carry and now you don't have those any more. I spend more than R1000 per week on groceries and another R1000+ per month at Makro on items I used to buy at Pick n Pay. Hypermarts should be the answer to a busy person's prayer---everything under one roof---but if I have to go to your competitors to buy the stuff I want, kindly explain to me why I should burn either my petrol or my time going to a Pick n Pay, because personally, I don't see any reason at all.

The bottom line for any retail business is that in order to make money, you must have stuff to sell. And if you want to do very well at making money in retail, you have to have stuff that your customers actually want, and in sufficient abundance that there is enough for all of them. You aren't selling shoes, where people come in, buy one two items and leave, you are in a business in which people buy dozens upon dozens of different items with each visit. Discontinuing (or failing to adequately stock) items that customers want is akin to cutting your own throat. When the list of discontinued or unavailable items that a shopper must buy elsewhere becomes large enough, the customer will simply go elsewhere for the whole shopping...and your loss of marketshare over the past few years should have amply demonstrated that. Pick n Pay is still the most convenient store, location-wise, to my home but until and unless you address this lack of stock issue, I am not going back.

**Sweet Violet**

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Folly of Prohibition: why banning guns won't work

When did banning something make it go away?

In the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting…the 27th in America in the past 10 years…people again are trotting out the knee-jerk “ban guns” demand. And while it may sound good at first blush, a little critical examination will reveal that legal prohibitions against things that members of the public really want and are willing to break the law to obtain benefits nobody in the society except the criminals.

In 2010 the US government spent more than $15 billion…that’s $500 per second…on the War on Drugs. And that is just the tax dollars spent on a drug policy that is and has been an unmitigated failure…except for those who have exploited and grown rich and powerful in the black market America’s prohibition of drugs has created.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution took effect in January of 1920 and for the next 13 years, thanks to another black market created by the US government, liquor continued to flow throughout America due to the likes of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. The government hemorrhaged money into enforcing Prohibition and went without substantial potential tax revenues, since the production, transport and sale of alcohol was, officially, not happening. But it was happening and it spawned and supported America’s first major foray into organized crime, an organization that stayed with us even after the Amendment was repealed in 1933: the Mafia. And the cost, both in dollars and in lives, has been vast and the legacy of Prohibition continues to this day, nearly a century later.

Prohibition of abortion did not stop abortion, it merely drove it underground. From conscientious doctors who wanted to provide desperate women with a medically safe alternative to an unwanted pregnancy to back-alley butchers who killed women with perforated uteruses and septicaemia to distressed women who attempted to abort themselves with coat hangers, knitting needles, and noxious potions, abortions continued despite laws prohibiting them and prescribing draconian punishment for doctors caught providing them. It didn’t go away, it simply provided yet another black market opportunity for illegally-generated wealth while it dealt death and disaster to those forced to seek abortion outside the clean, sterile, safe walls of a hospital or bona fide clinic.

With this for a history to reference, who in their right mind can possibly believe that banning guns will not result in a new black market and increased opportunity for a new organized criminal element to rise to wealth and power—illicit gun dealers? Why target the tool when the real problem is the people using the tool? If we want to spend tax money on making and enforcing a law designed to reduce or eliminate these kinds of horrific killings, why not invest that money into something more likely to have a positive result, like government-funded mental health programs and mental health laws that improve the quality of life not only for the mentally ill, but for those around them as well.

We live in a society that, in the span of just a couple of generations, has gone from valuing and admiring courtesy and “good guys” to a culture that admires the rude, the snide, the cruel, the sarcastic. It is no longer enough to win, you now have to rub the other guy’s face in the dirt and spit on him. Gone are the days when the losers in a contest were consoled, their successes during the course of the contest praised, and encouragement for the next time given. Instead, they are humiliated, castigated, shamed, and hauled over the coals, as if rebuking them further provides some kind of inspiration to do better next time. We embrace and admire and make wealthy celebrities of people whose stock-in-trade is cutting, degrading, mortification of people who have done nothing more than fail to live up to an expectation. Gordon Ramsey, Simon Cowell, Anne Robinson of TV’s Weakest Link: all epitomize the sadistic set down trend that passes for humour nowadays, entertainment wrought at the expense of the feelings of those whom they verbally abuse. And, being the Great Apes that we are, we humans imitate and try to top our celebrity mentors and we turn our friends, families, classmates, co-workers, neighbours and even complete strangers into the butts of our cruelly conceived and thoughtlessly delivered attempts at humour.

Brutality has not always been considered acceptable entertainment. Historically speaking, American entertainment has had guidelines, regulations, and controls in the past. The Hayes office controlled the content of movies for decades, which is why old movies showed married couples sleeping in separate beds and you didn’t see graphic sex or violence in the theatre. That said, French and Italian cinema produced some pretty steamy pictures at about the same time, and you didn’t see their societies implode as a result. I remember my first Sam Peckinpah film and how horrible the graphic killings were. It does desensitize a person to see this kind of thing, and when it becomes everyday fare both in films and video games, it has to desensitize a person to the carnage: imagine the impact on someone already disaffected and feeling disenfranchised?

In any given contest there is only one winner. Everybody else are either fans or losers…and if you aren’t the winner, the way you avoid being identified as one of the losers is to throw your lot in with the winner—become a fan, a sycophant, a toady. And so the winners of the world, be they jocks or bankers, celebs or mean girls of any age, are joined by their fans in creating the us vs. them paradigm in which “them” are grievously insulted, assaulted, disrespected, humiliated, diminished and generally shat upon, all in the name of entertainment and humour.

And what are these “losers” supposed to do with their feelings of outrage and hurt? Suck it up? Shrug it off? Not have any feelings at all? One of the things people do when they are deeply and repeatedly wounded is they stop feeling. They become emotionally numb, at least on the surface, so that they don’t feel the pain so sharply. One of the problems with that, however, is that this causes a loss of empathy and compassion because if they can’t access their feelings of pain for themselves, those feeling for others are pretty inaccessible as well. They aren’t really numb, though…they just repress the pain and it goes underground where it festers and grows. And if the targeted people are already struggling with issues of low self-worth, if they’ve been bullied before, if they aren’t pretty or popular or have some kind of physical anomaly or are socially awkward…how do they assimilate the emotional assaults and carry on with equanimity? With little or nothing available to the average person in the way of mental health care, a lot of them don’t. Some of them become withdrawn and anti-social, some of them become willing to do anything to be liked, some of them engage in self-harm, some join gangs where they feel accepted, some commit suicide. And some of them turn their rage outwards and they kill.

Normal, mentally healthy people do not commit mass murders. And quite a few of the shooters in recent tragedies had mental health problems that could have been treated, or at least managed via medication or even hospitalization if it had been available to them. What few people seem to have noticed is that this mass murder as a means of payback or gaining recognition is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Very, very few comparable acts have been committed outside the US…and there has to be something to that. What is it about contemporary American culture that spawns this kind of heinous act?

One of our biggest failings, I think, is the abandonment of the mentally ill. Jared Loughner, had he been born a couple of generations earlier, would have been in a state hospital not for committing a crime but because he was mentally unstable and dangerous to himself and others. Today, state mental hospitals are almost exclusively for the criminally insane—after their mental illness has led them to commit crimes. In 1967 California passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act which, unfortunately, has only been enforced as far as relieving the state of the burden of care of the mentally ill; the provisions which would cost the state money have been assiduously ignored. Other states followed suit with similar limitations and basically put the mentally ill out on the street and took away the power of family members to do what is best for those people, and the state washed its hands of responsibility. Given that a significant portion of Americans do not have any medical insurance and those who do have it ordinarily have very little mental health coverage (certainly not enough to pay for extended confinement for a mentally ill family member), there appeared not a crack but a chasm in mental health care: with the exception of the independently wealthy, care for the seriously mentally disturbed was out of the financial reach of most Americans and the state washed its hands of any responsibility.

This “not my brother’s keeper” mentality has added to this problem by making people unwilling to have tax money spent to house and treat such individuals. Because the mentally ill are not gushing blood or spreading communicable disease like TB, the average American sees no reason why the mentally ill can’t just “suck it up” and behave like the rest of us. Ignorance of mental illness is rife—I remember being frustratingly unable to pry open the minds of people in the Andrea Yates case and get them to grasp what psychosis meant and why she could not be blamed. People kept saying “she must be crazy to do such a thing” without truly grasping exactly what crazy meant in the context of her situation.

Part of this “not my brother’s keeper” mentality includes a slavish but uncomprehending dedication to both competitiveness and capitalism. Socialism is beginning to take on the spectre that Communism had back in the days of the Red Scare and any program intended to help the unfortunate using tax monies is branded “Socialism” and backed away from with abhorrence. But the truth is, those countries that foster cooperation and respect and care for the less fortunate, like the Scandinavian countries, have the lowest crime rates, the highest education rates, the greatest “life satisfaction” scores. And these countries are heavily Socialist--they invest tax monies in their people through high-quality education, health (including mental health) care, and a societal attitude that does not foster a heavily competitive, win-at-any-cost kind of society. Norway had a single spree killing in 2011—America had four. In the decade from 2003-2012, inclusive, the whole of Scandinavia had just the one massacre, America had 27...five of which occurred in California, the most populated state in the Union, and six of which occurred in Wisconsin! In fact, the most recent massacre in Scandinavia, prior to Breivik’s attack, appears to have occurred in the 15th or16 century!

Scandinavians value the idea of not only a free and equal society, but one in which the more fortunate help the less fortunate through government social problems. You seldom see tax refugee Swedes or Danes, and the idea that allowing poor people to freeze to death or starve, or that their children should die due to lack of appropriate medical care, doesn’t seem to have much traction. And yet, despite the high tax rate and socialist government, many people make money and live affluent lifestyles...Sweden alone boasts at least nine billionaires (in USD), of which only two have left to escape taxes.

The bottom line here is that this is a complex problem that will not respond to simplistic solutions. Mentally healthy people do not commit these kinds of atrocities, mentally unbalanced people do, so it would seem the very first line of address should be to tighten up the mental health laws. Gun laws? I dunno—Texas, a state rife with NRA-types only accounted for one massacre in the past decade, and that was on a military base where gun control laws would not apply. And yet Wisconsin, a state with a low population and even lower profile, had more massacres in the last decade than any other. What is going on in Texas that has kept a well-armed civilian populace massacre-free over the last decade that is not going on in Wisconsin? Or, conversely, what is going on in Wisconsin that so many citizens feel the need to spray death upon their unsuspecting neighbours that is not going on in Texas?

More than anything, we need to think...really, truly think...about this situation and not take action simply because it is an action. Ill-conceived laws hastily passed end up getting tossed out by the courts, leaving us right back at the starting point, but with precious time having been wasted. It’s not enough to control guns—or even ban them. The disturbed and truly determined will find other ways... there are numerous other ways of committing mass carnage than firearms including running a motor vehicle into a crowd or busy establishment or even bombs...any fool can make a bomb, instructions and ingredients are readily available. Most of all, however, we as a people have to start changing our attitudes, remember we are our brother’s keepers, and that compassion and empathy get us all further in the long run than selfishness and scorn.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Saturday morning when I got up, my internet connection and my phone were working. Why is this significant? Because for most of September and October sometime between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, my phone would go down and the technicians from the telephone company could not give it a permanent fix.

By their third visit, they were blaming my telephones and my house wiring (which they installed just 2 years ago). So fixated on blaming my telephones and in-house wiring were these guys that, once they had confirmed that the line was working up to the pole outside my house, they simply ceased to troubleshoot any further and blamed my equipment. Over the course of 3 weeks they blamed my telephones, my wiring, my modem/router, my line filters, even the weather!!...but failed to troubleshoot beyond the pole.

A week ago a tech came out and when he started his blaming the customer song and dance, I lost my temper and read him the riot act and demanded he go up on roof and check the wiring from the pole to my house and from there, the wiring up to the first telephone in the series, and to replace it if it looked worn. He balked. He called his supervisor to complain about what I was asking, moaning about how long it would take to replace that wire. I refused to "no" for an answer and I actually yelled at the technician (something I seldom do--my maid has worked for me for 5 years and I haven't raised my voice to her even once in all that time).

My husband stepped in and spoke to the supervisor who informed us that the technician told him we had illegal extensions and that was causing the problem. Hubby had to get out a phone bill to prove our extensions were installed by the phone company and we paid a fee every month for each of them. The technician pretended he couldn't read the bill when the supervisor asked him to verify that. Finally, he was told to comply and my husband actually went up on the roof with the technician to ensure he did as I asked.

And guess what? On the roof they found the wire that lead from the pole to the kitchen phone had lost some of its insulation and the bare copper was exposed to the rain, wind, birds, falling leaves and whatever else. The technician replaced the wire, but remained unconvinced that it was the source of the problem. But I got up on Saturday and my phone and my ADSL were working...and this morning it was working, despite a hellacious electrical storm last night.

 I, for one, will not be surprised if they keep on working since the one place the technicians repeatedly overlooked in their troubleshooting had a fault and that fault was finally corrected. I expect things will work just swimmingly, at least for a while...until something new comes along to toss me off the internet again...

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Snow? WTF??

Bird of Paradise flowers in my back garden in the snow
It is snowing outside.

I live in a brick house with no central heating, and it is snowing outside. In Africa.

The inside of my house is like the inside of a refrigerator.

I hate snow.

It never snowed in Cape Town--not even a little bit. Every time I think Joburg maybe isn't as bad as I was thinking, something like this happens to remind me why I was right about this place.

I HATE snow.

And it is snowing outside.

Monday, July 09, 2012


I have just had ten spam comments on this blog in less than an hour. KNOW that if you comment here and include a link to another site and the comment (and link) are not truly relevant to the blog entry, you will NOT get published. I approve EVERY comment before it gets published, so you don't even get a nanosecond of face time with readers or with me (because I don't click links that have an unknown source).

So give it up, asshole--you are wasting your time and I have ALL DAY to sit here and send your crap to the spam bin.

Monday, July 02, 2012


Friday night and early Saturday morning (29 and 30 June) Puddin' presented us with a litter of 6 little Yorkshire Terrier puppies--cutest little things on feet (well, actually, on bellies just now!). Mama and babies doing very well!

More pics as time goes on!