IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Defeated by a pack of brinjals

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Sept 1, 2013

The self-checkout line at the supermarket is a wonderful tool for anyone with a need to save time, increase efficiency and enjoy the delights of public humiliation.

How hard could it be? That was what I thought when I saw it last week. The correct answer would be: Much harder than you think.

The help screen announced that the process of checking out was as simple as 1. Scan 2. Pay 3. Go. But small, in-between steps, such as What The Hell Did I Just Press, or Why Are You Beeping, and Dear God Why Are You Beeping must have been left out.

I was defeated by a pack of brinjals. The computer asked for its weight, and there was none on the sticker. This is a software flaw, because if the computer knows it is a brinjal, shouldn't it know the weight? The range of possible brinjal sizes is not huge. There is no such thing as a brinjal made for a doll's house, or one for an elephant dinner.

Only a few customers had dared try the automated line, and I saw why. Failing to complete the procedure means making a walk of shame past the row of people at the cashier's point, to join the back of the line, where I hoped to see someone else fail at self-checkout so as to move the focus away from me.

The system was obviously made for products other than purple vegetables, but no one told me. I like to think I am good with computers but once again I have misjudged my level of competence.

Overestimating my intelligence is an issue I grapple with daily, say, when I browse an issue of The Economist magazine in the hope that maybe this time, I will get what it is saying. The only thing I seem to glean from it is that it is written in a kind of English.

So it is good to know that I am rarely ever alone in this personality flaw. There have been civil servants who appeared in public service videos, to rap. Why did they rap? Because it looked easy. It is not, and by the time they find out, it is too late: They have made the civil service and rap music both look terrible.

Something about having a baby also makes some couples think they have become parenting experts. It is like a religious conversion, as if procreation came with a pack of free vouchers for insight. They know what is good for children, instinctively. I don't think so.

One colleague brought her son to work one day. She had been giving child-rearing advice for years. Her 10-year-old ran around our desks like a monkey with its fur on fire. He squealed in a language that was more velociraptor than human. I tried to stop him doing that. He punched me in an area I do not wish to discuss. It was then that I decided to not have children.

Exceeding the limits of competence is common in the arts. To the incompetent, professional photography, playing music and interior design look easy. There is the related paradox of those who get into these activities: They do not know when to quit, because they are not good enough to tell that they are bad.

Mind you, not knowing you are not good at something is not the same as being delusional about your talent. Incompetent people are smacked in the face by reality and go back to their day jobs, places where they are free to imagine that they are good at something else if only they had the time to "brush up a bit".

Delusional people have goals, which are like the bedbugs of the mind: Impossible to kill. I see delusion in my job almost every day. I receive e-mail from musicians asking me to write about them. They tell me to check out the YouTube videos. The first thing I notice is the number of views. It has not occurred to the musicians that if after a year, there are fewer than 20 views, it is a sign that you are 10,000 times less interesting than the guy who films his lighted farts.

These hopeful singers think a news story will fix the problem. It is not likely to happen, not even if the story were titled He Sings Good: Why Everyone On The Internet Is Wrong About Gary.

But then there is a special category of human endeavour where the activities are actually as easy as it looks. There is no line between expert and beginner. These are aspirational skills that anyone can aspire to, and acquire, five minutes after getting out of bed.

One of these jobs is deejaying. The requirements seem to be having an attitude and a business card that says "DJ". The savvier ones add a bit of flair to stand out, such as being the deejay with the biggest sideburns. Some clubs feature female deejays whose flair, and cup size, is the first thing the crowd notices, not the beats.

Another skill that appears to lack prerequisites other than the ability to breathe through the nostrils is being a magician. People, usually magicians, ask why no one seems to be interested in seeing a magic show unless it is a free one tacked on a casino buffet. To get people to pay for a ticket to a magic show involves blanketing the country with posters promising an act that will amaze, astound and cure your dog of worms.

The reason is that the audience is very hard to impress these days. They have seen things that would have boggled the minds of past generations: Large Hadron Collider, reusable spacecraft, stem cell therapy and twerking. A sequinned assistant who disappears, then appears somewhere else,is not going to impress someone who has seen a cronut.

This leaves me wondering if I should attempt self-checkout again. I will do it, but only if the supermarket installs a privacy curtain shielding me from public embarrassment. That, and striking brinjals off my diet.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Sept 1, 2013

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