Someone’s serious business, my frivolity

While the bulk of material on Synapses is rather serious in nature, I must confess that I sometimes engage in trivial pursuits. Like laughing at the way in which people sometimes take themselves far too seriously, and flying to London for 4 days, simply to watch a FA Cup Quarter-Final match between Manchester United and Arsenal. Below, I offer a brief account of these two activities, in the hope that readers will sometimes be less critical of the more serious things I have to say, now that they have confirmation that I’m just like them (well, sort of).

So, as to how people can take themselves far too seriously: Yesterday, after having pledged to make dinner for myself and The Doctor, a trip to Gardens Centre was required in order to procure ingredients. Walking past the MTN store, I remembered that I had had difficulty with roaming while in London, and I therefore walked in to make enquiries. While chatting to the clerk, a woman came in, and started addressing the customer in line behind me (the only one). She asked him how long he’d been waiting, emphasising that she was short on time.

Not long, he said, but this was insufficiently reassuring. “I don’t have time to twiddle my thumbs”, she said. She then asserted that she would get on with other business, and that this customer should ensure that her place in the queue was preserved. In a somewhat bemused fashion, he offered an ambiguous mumble, and she departed. Upon returning, and finding herself next in line, she forcefully dropped her phone on the counter, and started loudly complaining that it was misbehaving.

The staff tinkered, at one point plugging it in to check that it was charged. Big mistake. “I charged it this morning! Do you think I’m stupid?”, she yelled. But the problem had something to do with turning off/on, and they were unable to diagnose the fault right there. So they offered to take it in for repairs. No – “it’s not worth repairing. It only cost me R100”, she said. “Well, is it under guarantee? We can take it in for repairs, and offer you a loan phone in the meanwhile”, the staff offered.

“No! You must replace it”. She pointed to the MTN branding on the phone, and said, waving her arms around to gesture at the store walls, “all of this here made this phone, and is responsible for it!”. They then dared to ask if she had bought it there. But she had not – she had bought it at the Waterfront CNA. Well then, ma’am, we can’t help you – you must take it there, and I imagine if you have your receipt, they will be able to help. “Who keeps receipts!”, she yelled. “And do you mean I have to traipse all the way to the Waterfront? I don’t have time for that!”. “We can’t help you, ma’am – you didn’t buy it here, and even if you did, we’d need your receipt to be able to help”.

So she storms out. About ten minutes later (I was having a long geeky conversation with a clerk), she appeared in the doorway and announced: “I have bought a phone from Vodacom!”. Then, she steps in, throws the phone on the floor, and starts stomping on it and crushing it with her heel, shrieking things like “this is what I think of MTN!”. She kicks pieces of phone in the direction of the helpdesk, and storms out again. But – she had forgotten something. Seconds later, she re-appears, throws the charger into the store, and yells “and you can hang yourselves on THIS!”.

We all had a good laugh, and one store clerk had some good fortune, as it appears the phone, once reassembled, was now in better working order.

The other frivolity involved my friend, the occasional celebrity “After-dinner mint” (at least according to a P4 radio billboard that once bore his mugshot), calling me last Sunday to suggest the audacious plan of flying to London to watch football. So we did, because the game was at Old Trafford, home of the best football team (and the ugliest footballer). And seeing as he is an Arsenal fan, and they were “our” opposition, I could look forward to plenty of gloating at his expense once we secured our inevitable victory (2-0 to Manchester United was the eventual score. As the crowd kept reminding the MintMan, his team “is just a shit Barcelona”).

And London was fun. We went to pubs, ate at fat-lip Jamie’s Italian (and, with another friend, at Heston Blumenthal’s Hinds Head, where I enjoyed a 52-hour cooked pork belly). We hung with Simon Pegg at a bar in Covent Garden (no, not really, but he was there), and took lots of Tube rides and a train to Manchester. We learnt that orang-utans use tree bark for sexual pleasure (so the poster said – not empirically verified by us), and that strange fox-like creatures in London steal stuff from your car, if you’re not sufficiently watchful. We saw a famous (I imagine) mouldy wall outside our hotel room. It became known to us that the disabled have access to an “ability suite” at Old Trafford. And also, I discovered that Eton has a “Porny School”, which might be useful information to some of you.

Travels in the hyperreal

Normal service* should now be able to resume here at Synapses, following a 20-day sojourn in various parts of that strange place they call America. While it’s great to be back in Cape Town, especially with World Cup fever already starting to mount, there are aspects of life there that I never fail to appreciate – most notably the generally polite (even if often formulaic) ways in which people interact. The ad-hoc manner of much social engagement here in South Africa is certainly interesting, and oftentimes a good tonic against boredom**, but I do hope we one day reach a socio-economic level whereby people’s incentives are no longer so emphatically short-term.

But short-term incentives was exactly the zone in which our trip started, in Las Vegas. The Bellagio's water showWhile I was there for a conference (on responsible gambling), that didn’t stop the Doctor and I from having plenty of fun. It’s not the sort of place I’d want to live, but if you’re there for 4 days, and are able to pretend you’re living in a video game (in which your character has plenty of disposable income), it’s a great place to be.

We wined, we dined (there’s a plethora of celeb-chef eateries in the casinos), we saw a few shows. And then we (the Doctor took another path at this point) went way south to Birmingham, Alabama, home of countless fundamentalist churches and boarded-up abortion clinics (well, I didn’t try to count, but there are a fair number). In this ocean of mental-death, a small island of deep thought presented itself at the University of Alabama, where Ross, Ladyman and Dennett (and others) spoke at a colloquium on scientific naturalism and metaphysics.

In terms of cultural difference, you’d struggle to find two American locations more divergent, but we were fortunately well-insulated from the most unwelcome sorts of Southern hospitality, while still getting to enjoy the welcome sorts (pulled pork and barbecue sauce, of course).

And then, a week of pure vacation in Maryland, which mostly involved eating and drinking, interspersed with an evening of excessive eating, drinking, and incredulity over Thanksgiving, where the Doctor and I were seated at a table including a (self-professed) redneck, a TSA agent and his military bride, and some incredibly loud children. These people were all family, in some indirect way that adds further terror to the idea of “family”.

Now were back home in Cape Town, and I’m mostly caught up with the backlog of stuff that relentlessly piles up. But most importantly, it’s good to be home – nothing reminds you more of what a great place this is to live than being away from it.

* No rash promises here: this means perhaps a post every two weeks, rather than one per month.

** The headline news item on 567 CapeTalk at 2pm today was that Charlize Theron was dining at the Waterfront, right now! The breathless reporter reported (as they do) that he had tried to gain entry to the restaurant in question (not named) to have a few words, but was not permitted entry.

A flight too many

After leaving Cape Town at noon on Saturday, I finally arrived in Lake Tahoe at around 9pm (SA time) on Sunday. That’s too much flying for one weekend, and not an experience I’ll want to repeat anytime soon, especially considering that American toddlers are even noisier than normal ones. Furthermore, American parents seem somewhat reluctant to shut the damn things up. In this case, perhaps that’s because the parent in question was too busy changing the nappy of one of her noisy brood, right there in the seat, two rows ahead of me.