homo absurdus

I don’t read newspapers anymore, and am not much interested in watching the news on TV either. The columnists refer to people and events I am now unfamiliar with, and I have the feeling news reports are designed to raise my anxiety levels rather than inform me.

But in the days I did read them, newspapers often kept me entertained with little stories of foibles and mistakes, human errors and failures that were a lot of comfort in a world full of smart operators busy fleecing the gullible, smooth operators lining their pockets, pompous operators pulling the wool over people’s eyes and corrupt operators helping themselves to other people’s money. I don’t know how accurate these stories were or are, or if the reporters were just making it all up. But I am glad we seem to still bumble about making fools of ourselves, because that is a genuine part of being a human being.

For instance, the robber in Sydney Australia who handed over a note to the bank teller. “This is a holdup. I am armed. Put the money in a bag. Keep quiet and no-one will get hurt.” The police arrive, examine the note, see it is an envelope and…go to the address on the front where they disturb the robber counting his money.

Or the two robbers, surely no relation to the one above, who make a getaway in a stolen car, ditch it near the Quay and go to catch a ferry and merge with the commuter crowd. The police arrive on their trail and find them easily. That day there is a 24 hour ferry strike and the robbers are marooned on the jetty. The police must love it when they can do their job without an hysterical shootout.

Pilita Clark reported from Washington about a spate of American sightings of the Virgin Mary, which she believed were rapidly overtaking Elvis sightings in number. New Jersey, Georgia, Mexico, Ohio, Rockdale and California had all seen manifestations of the Virgin Mary, on walls, trees, weeping statues and on mountain tops. Seems people have an enormous capacity to believe, no matter how often they are disappointed. Look at the number of end of the world prophecies that have galvanised groups to take a stand, only to later sheepishly disperse.

But credulity can have a tragic consequence, as in the story from North Carolina of a man who believed himself to have miraculous powers and called himself the Saviour. He beat a blind man to death in an attempt to cure his blindness (none so blind as they who will not see).

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was once a banned book, and was once a best seller when it was finally released to the general public who were looking salaciously for naughty bits. It is good to restore the balance in favour of poor old D H Lawrence by citing this review in Field and Stream magazine in 1932: “This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper…” Needless to say this was a review of the expurgated version.

We make a fetish of science, and still mostly believe that scientists are exact, unprejudiced individuals who never jump to conclusions. But what about the 1969 study “The use of goldfish as a model for alcohol amnesia in man”. This found that the learning abilities of goldfish deteriorated as they were made progressively drunk. This was proven, and statistical charts drawn up in support.

Then there was the Harvard study that showed that 83.4% of sperm from a healthy human donor was immobilised in a test tube of Coca-Cola. When Diet Coke was used, the rate was 100%. Now that information has got to be useful for something, hasn’t it? It probably won’t replace the condom, and the makers of Coca-Cola can hardly use it in an ad, nor as a secret ingredient, but there has to be a practical application. Surely?

In Ohio university researchers studied the sexual attraction of rats for tennis balls. There was none. At least that study found none, but that should not deter other researchers from trying rats with a different brand of tennis ball. You never know. Other researchers have found that incidence of homosexuality increases in mice the more they are exposed to disco music. Bear this in mind next time you watch Saturday Night Fever. A group of researchers have demonstrated that worms will cringe on being administered an electric shock, which will make anyone who’s received one feel a whole lot better. And all these examples, in case you’re wondering, come from The Drunken Goldfish by William Harston.

More research. Michigan researchers studied the answers of 24,000 Germans to a questionnaire on happiness within marriage. The conventional view is that after a blissful period when couples gaze into one another’s eyes for long periods, can’t stop touching one another and have considerable enthusiasm for each other’s bodies, couples settle down in a ‘partnership’, until occurs the Seven Year Itch, when the wife starts thinking her tennis coach is a bit of a hunk, and the husband tries looking up his secretary’s skirt. But no. Well, the seven year bit at least has been challenged by this study. People return to pre marriage levels of happiness after two years, so this study found. Were we wrong before, or are we getting dissatisfied with each other more quickly now?

Am I the only one who thinks computer technology has a funny side? Do you remember the Millennium bug? There was widespread panic as the year 2000 dawned (or was it when it ended?), with thousands worrying the ground would be littered by planes falling out of the sky as their computers failed to work. Which half of the population to you belong to, the half that knows what USB, DIMM, WAV, RAM and ROM actually stand for, how large a gigabyte is, how to measure bps and operate a wireless connection on ADSL2+, or the half that wishes computers would work like other electrical devices we all own? As David Higgins says, we don’t have to update the operating system of a microwave oven every year. Stereos don’t hang or crash when you’re listening to a CD or a radio station. A $30 toaster ejects a piece of toast when it’s ready, but a $2000 computer can’t unmount a drive automatically. You don’t need special equipment to screen out viruses while watching TV (but a TV junk mail filter would be handy). The computer industry knows that half the population doesn’t know what it’s buying, and that the other half is so anxious not to let their knowledge get out of date that they bluff half the time. The industry’s response is to get computers to do things for us, which leaves us nowhere when they break down. OK, OK, so we have to buy a new one every six months anyway, because the industry is changing so rapidly that totally new technologies emerge every six months. The nerds will never keep up.

Let me finish with a completely fabricated incident, from a short story whose name and author unfortunately I can’t remember. San Tropez, 1930. A holidaying couple from Chicago are walking on the beach when they spy a swarthy, rotund man walking energetically up and down the sand, drawing a pattern with a piece of driftwood. As they get closer they are overwhelmed: it’s the painter Picasso. Fascinated, they watch what he’s doing. Slowly, from lines drawn in the wet sand, emerges a cubist masterpiece, and the couple are lost in wonderment. Nodding with satisfaction, Picasso throws the stick aside and walks away, and the couple are left alone, too intimidated to approach him. Slowly their feet sink into the wet sand, and soon their ankles are awash with the rising tide. The tide! Horrified, they turn, and see the sea slowly encroaching on the shore as high tide approaches. The cubist masterpiece! In a panic, the husband sends his wife running to the hotel to fetch his camera. As he watches, the sea settles in the sand grooves of Picasso’s drawing, and slowly, slowly, washes them away. When the man’s wife gets back, she finds him standing ankle deep in the tide. If this was a quizz, I’d say, where is the painting? In Picasso’s mind? In the memory of the tourists? Drifting out to sea? But it’s not a quizz. Instead, imagine the faces of those two visitors from Chicago, as fame and wealth drift out to sea, and they are left merely with an unspoilt coastal paradise to enjoy.

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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