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Always take the weather with you

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 23 June 2006

What would we do without the weather? When unsure what to speak about or write about, for that matter, there’s always the weather. When conversation dries up, you can seek safety in a discussion about a climatic disaster. As singer Tom Waits says, “strangers talk about the weather”.

Before I moved to the northern hemisphere, I never knew the significance of the weather or that it could be such a large part of daily discussion. People talk about it all the time. But it is not only strangers who use it to break the ice. Everyone spends time analysing the weather and, after enduring a few winters here, I know why. The weather is so foul you are forced to consider its impact. Of course, it is not all dreadful. On the odd day in July, the sun can shine and temperatures can occasionally sneak up to 25 ?C. These days are generally marked by two occurrences. Firstly, the streets are transformed into a riot of colour that ranges from transparent white flesh through to sunburned lobster-red flesh. Secondly, good weather is greeted with a flurry of capitalist zeal. People rush out to buy new braais or barbecues, along with matching garden furniture and other garden knickknacks from gnomes to cheap Japanese water features. These two phenomena can easily be explained. The former is about relative deprivation. The latter is the product of what psychologists call interval reinforcement. Behavioural psychologists can get a pigeon to peck a disc when rewarded with food. Interestingly, you can get a pigeon to peck consistently either by rewarding and reinforcing its behaviour after a standard number of pecks, or by only occasionally rewarding it at average variable intervals. The potential reward is enough to get the creature to peck unrewarded, no matter how irregular or limited the reward is. This is why gamblers gamble, and why having the odd warm day can get people to buy a ton of outdoor equipment that will invariably rust in the rain for the rest of the year.

In fact, the more you think about it, the world works like this all the time. We vote for politicians who only occasionally carry through their promises. We buy lottery tickets because someone wins every now and then. Despite such rewards being largely erratic, we con ourselves into believing that they are predictable. We even invent things to make us feel the world is explainable. When it comes to weather, it is the TV forecast that is the technology that leads us down this path of compulsive behaviour. There are two types of people in the world – those that watch the forecast and those that do not. Watching the weather forecast in the northern hemisphere is as pointless as taking water skis with you on a camel safari in the Sahara. The forecast varies largely between dull, rainy and grey, and rainy, grey and dull. Forecasting warm days is equally as pointless, as it only leads to irrational social behaviour, as I explained. Of course, the forecast can be helpful in predicting major disasters but, on a day-to-day basis, it is reality TV for the clinically inane and groundlessly optimistic. I think we should return to the good old days when weather watching actually involved nature and an interaction with the world beyond plastic graphically-represented clouds.

So this is what I have learnt in these northern climes: if cows are lying down in a field, it is going to rain; if swallows are flying backwards, there is a fierce wind, and if your cat bolts across your garden seemingly being pelted with golf balls, it is probably hailing. More importantly, you just have to take the weather as it comes while paying heed to the wise words of Billy Connolly: there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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