Herpes Is Not a Greek Philosopher And Pythagoras is not a snake. A trivia board game loss highlights the importance of general knowledge.

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Although I am working on it, I am a sore loser.  I think I have a much better grip of my emotions now, but I cannot deny that when I am not winning, I am not the happiest of characters. Many times I have written about the fact that success is not a right, that winning is not genetic trait; anyone can lose. I understand that.

But it does not stop me from wanting to win all the time.

When I was younger any kind of losing was bad; I would choke up with anger that would eventually come out in tears. I was that competitive. As I grew older I learned how to let some things go, to accept defeat graciously when it came and to move on with life. Of course, there were still moments when I would cloud over and become a dark, brooding menace after something or other did not go my way. Generally, such moments were few and far between.

To date though, there are two things that will expose my sourness if I do not win: basketball and a game of 30 Seconds.

To lose at basketball is painful. It is one of the few competitive sports that combines ego with athletic ability; both are essential to do well in the game. You need a healthy ego to go out and compete with athletes that are sometimes better than you; your confidence levels need to be high when you step up to the three-point line to sink a fade-away jumper in the dying minutes of a game, when you are two points down. You could pass the ball to a team mate closer to the hoop for a much easier basket, but this is basketball – it thrives on doing the impossible. And attempting the impossible takes a whole lot of ego.

Actually, the whole basketball court is just a collection of egos; short ones, tall ones, ones that hog the ball, ones that pass it, ones that dunk it. From the moment you put on a pair of basketball shoes and a vest, it’s all ego.

But ego without athletic ability is just running your mouth. All hoopers know that there are two types of players: talkers and walkers. Talkers don’t score. They are useless. They have the ego, but none of the ability to back it up. Having a talker on your team is like catching a venereal; it messes with your mojo. Of course there are talkers that also walk, but there’s always someone who is doing more talking than stepping – sooner or later they get exposed.

Losing a basketball game hurts your ego and calls into question your ability. The funny thing about basketball though is that the healthier your ego, the more likely you are to take the defeat on the chest and get back to working on your game. With a healthy ego, you go back to the basics to try and hone your edge; it encourages you to improve. Strange game, basketball is.

The other thing that is most likely to make me lose my cool is a game of 30 Seconds.

[Feel free to skip this part if you know how 30 Seconds is played. The rules of 30 Seconds are very simple: people split themselves into teams, they roll a dice (the number they roll is subtracted from the total number of clues they correctly guess), a member of the team picks a card and then tries to get their team to guess the names on the cards without saying their names directly. For example, in order to get your team to guess who “Mickey Mouse” is, you cannot use the words “Mickey” or “Mouse”; you have to be creative. There are five names on a card, the objective of which is to guess all five within a thirty second window that is measured by an hourglass. The team that gets to the end first wins.]

Two weeks ago, against my better judgment, I was sucked into a game of 30 Seconds without adequate preparation. By preparation it is meant that I had not spent a week on Twitter smart mouthing the people I would play against. I had also not chosen my team. It might seem strange that I would make a fuss about not having my preferred team; after all it is just a simple board game. Surely I could just show up and have a good game with some friends and family?

The answer to that is no. Allow me to explain.

30 Seconds is not just a board game like Monopoly (which should just be renamed Cheating 101). It is a battle between education systems, right and left brainers, communication skills, the small article that you read yesterday on the internet without really reading it and now lo and behold, here is Gwede Mantashe on the card you just drew. It pits your powers of memory and information distillation against a little hourglass that makes you garble your words and confuse the simplest ideas.

Everything you have ever read suddenly becomes important; a large vocabulary, for once, becomes more valuable than a large penis.

A game might start of friendly and amicably, but sooner or later it descends into an argumentative mosh pit of technicalities, supposedly illegal demonstrations and pointing out of objects. Everyone becomes a lawyer, everyone becomes a judge. I have seen family members swear at each other over a clue that was only half-guessed. 30 Seconds is the Game of Life.

I love it.

In 30 Seconds, each team member is given the chance to pull his or her team five blocks ahead (depending on the number he or she rolled on the dice) or to leave them stagnating in the same spot. As I said, it is a ruthless game that combines intellect and the ability to churn out what you know in the simplest and sometimes, the most interesting and amusing ways.

Clue: What all atheists always say when they are in trouble even though they say that they do not believe in him!

Card says: Jesus Christ.

Now that is what I call a good clue.

People get worked up over 30 Seconds games whether they are winning or losing. There is no such thing as a quiet game of 30 Seconds. It is a rite of passage, from dumb to super-nerd that every human being should go through at some point in their life.

30 Seconds then, is not just a game, and to challenge me to a round is to ask me to go through all of the motions a family would go through when meeting their child’s suitor for the first time.

What country are you from? Because 30 Seconds cards tend to have a lot of geographical terms on it, I try to avoid having Americans on my team – there is literally, a whole world outside of the US that Americans do not know about.

What school did you go to? Everyone assumes that private schools will always trump public schools. This is not always so. It is not the kind of school that matters; it’s the larger education system. Cambridge education system for the win! South Africa’s outcome-based education can leave a 30 Seconds team seriously wanting at times.

What do you do? This is important – you can lay waste to a 30 Seconds game with one widely-read journalism major (Humanities FTW!) You could do the same with an engineer of course, but that engineer would have to know 80s pop culture like the back of their hand, which as we know, is used for more dubious activities.

What is your opinion on the situation in the West Bank? The reason why this question is important is not because it ascertains where a person’s politics lie – it determines whether the person knows what the West Bank is. Because if they start answering the question with “Well, I think interest rates are…” you need to ditch them fast. Clearly he or she does not read newspapers.

My interrogation techniques might seem a bit excessive but they aren’t. Where 30 Seconds is concerned, it’s all about surrounding yourself with the best of the best. Like playing a game of basketball, I don’t like being caught unawares and having to patch a team together from people I have never met or played with before. I like winning. Winning means calling up friends. I have been known to summon (that is the correct term for what I do) friends who live ten suburbs away to rush over and be on my team whenever a challenge has been issued. I rarely show up to 30 Seconds game unprepared.

Ordinarily, if I was in Cape Town, I would have had @sarah_koopman, @missnyashak, @mekondjo or @mr_basajj on my team. They’re a part of my 30 Seconds Dream Team. But I wasn’t in Cape Town. I was in Windhoek. Things are different here. The heat here has a taste and the mosquitoes are organised; they have gangs and shit. And 30 Seconds here can give a 23-year-old a heart attack. It almost did.

When I accepted the challenge, little did I know I was about to walk into a Caesarean ambush. I should have stayed home.

It will be easier to understand the rest of this story if I explain how 30 Seconds works out in my head. 30 Seconds is my version of an American high school teen drama. There are:

The football jocks (meat-heads who have somehow managed to make it all the way to high school – for some reason, jocks are quite good at breaking down complex idea into the simplest form).

The nerds (the people who know everything and anything but might not be the best at communicating things – full of teenage angst, they can be a danger, especially if they are of the emo-postmodern persuasion because it means they haven’t read a newspaper in a while. Sure they will know who F. Scott Fitzgerald is, but it’s the cards with “Miley Cyrus” that really decide the winner).

There are the cheerleaders (who don’t know jack shit and whom no one wants on their team…but since they are three of them, Rémy might as well be saddled with two – my night was going from bad to worse. I should have feigned an illness of some kind);

And there is always that one foreign exchange student, the FEZ, whom no one knows but who could turn out to be the difference right at the end. On most 30 Seconds nights, the FEZ is the friend-of-a-friend whom no one else really knows or wants on their team because they don’t know what he or she can do – he is the guy who just shows up, and thinks it would be fun to join the game. I avoid FEZs like the plague – I never go into battle with an untested gun. Tonight was not my lucky night though; the FEZ was assigned to my team. Things were not looking good.

The best 30 Seconds players are the half-nerds, half-jocks who know a little bit of everything and can communicate it – it’s like having a nerd with a six-pack; touchdowns and high grades at the same time. That’s winning. The other two teams I faced off against had a healthy supply of them. My team, and I am not ashamed to say this, was going to be dismembered, one agonizing clue at a time.

Trivia games are hallow for people like me. It is because it validates a portion of our existence. It justifies all the random articles that we have read, all of the (mostly) useless facts that we know and only get to throw around in this small space of time. It’s like intellectual bodybuilding. For the most part it serves no purpose. But then Mr 30 Seconds Palm Beach comes along and every intellectual muscle is oiled and flexed. It is the one time where having read all the books between Fantastic Mr Fox and the Iliad pays off.  Suddenly paying attention in chemistry class, physics, geography and history is not such a bad thing. Because knowing that Pythagoras was a Greek mathematician and not “the world’s most dangerous snake” (this actually happened to some friends of mine) is what makes the difference between winning and losing.

Without realising it, all of the random classic movies you watched and the National Geographic magazines you pored over come in handy. You can imagine how seriously nerds like me take trivia games. It’s the one time where what we know, and how we know it, becomes…cool.

And it isn’t just the so-called nerds who take trivia games seriously. I have yet to play a game of 30 Seconds where even the cheerleaders do not make a brave effort to show that they know Casablanca is not a kind of ice-cream.

As I said earlier, 30 Seconds is all about validation. It’s about showing someone that you know this or that. You know x and y more than the next person. For me, it justifies my high school years. I didn’t do the normal things that people do in high school like trying to lose my virginity or getting drunk. I spent most of my time pimping my brain to the public library. My mind was a cheap prostitute; any public library with R5 membership fee could have me for a day, or a week. I really wasn’t picky.

To lose at 30 Seconds is too say that I should have been out skirt-chasing instead of reading Sophocles’ Antigone (which is deathly boring by the way) or Terry Pratchett (who should have some kind of religion dedicated to him). It calls into question five years of my life I will never get back. Like basketball, losing means you haven’t been training hard enough. It’s deflating.

On that fateful December evening, I was going to have my ego pricked in a bad way.

I had come home from Cape Town with an unbeaten streak; I hadn’t lost in about twelve 30 Seconds outings – yes, I keep score – so I was pretty confident that no matter what, I would go for the baker’s dozen that evening.

It wasn’t meant to be. I had two cheerleaders and a FEZ on my team – no one can win with such a team. Not even if the thirty-second time limit was increased to an hour. From the start, team chemistry was off and when we lost the first game, we were 15 paces behind…the last team. My unbeaten streak vanished, Arsenal like.

What happened afterwards is one for the history books.

I have a knack of getting myself involved in the most absurd adventures. I used to think half the stuff authors write in their autobiographies was fake or imagined. It isn’t. Life is the biggest hallucinogen there is – depending on what you do and where you live, strange things can happen any day. You don’t need to be rich and famous or eccentric to live a life worth writing about – you just need to be alive. If you live in Africa, ninety percent of the script is written already; you’re winning an Oscar, kid. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

Every once in a while I wake up and pinch myself to make sure that whatever happens during the day will be real. No amount of pinching could have prepared me for what was about to happen that night though. If you scroll back far enough on my Twitter timeline you will find the night in question. For this post, I will only recall the highlights.

After my team was massacred in the first game, it was unanimously decided that the cheerleaders would be evenly spread around the three teams. With the playing field evened up, the game became more competitive. Soon, all three teams found themselves in a position where they could win the game. The Red Team was one space away from the finish line (meaning that they needed two correct clues to win), The Blue Team was two spaces away (they needed three to win) and my team was four blocks away from redeeming itself. We needed five clues to cross the finish line.

There was only one problem though: the cheerleader was charged with bringing the team home.

The dice roll was lenient to us and we managed a zero, meaning we could win the game if we got all five clues correct. To my surprise, the cheerleader did well getting us to correctly guess Dr Seuss (“Green Eggs and Ham”); Beijing (“China! Big city!); Aladdin (“Magic carpet! Arabian! Likes Princess Jasmine!”) and Wal-Mart (“You climb it and shop in it too!”).

One more clue and we would be high and dry.

She faltered.

The whole time my team was guessing the clues, I was nagged by the feeling that we were not going to win the game; it was not my destiny to go into 2012 with a 30 Seconds victory. There would be no slow motion moment where the underdog’s bat connected with the ball to hit the home run that would send the fans into a joyous frenzy. Nope, none of that for me.

“It must be a famous pirate!” she said as she looked at the card.

Blackbeard! Jack Sparrow!” we shouted.

“No wait! It’s an exercise routine where you stretch!” Time was running out, but she seemed pretty confident when she yelled this out.

“Yoga! Tai Chi!” we all screamed out.

“No! Try again! Quickly! You’re so close!”

The last grain of sand fell to the bottom of the hourglass. Our time was up. The Red Team was going next and with only one space between them, they were not going to choke.

When the put down the card, she avoided my gaze – I had been giving her a hard time the whole evening. My competitive streak had come out in a bad way. I was justified though; the last clue wasn’t a pirate or any exercise routine.

It was “Pontius Pilate”.

Pontius Pilate. The Roman governor who washed his hands of Jesus’ trial and by doing so gave him over for crucifixion. Pontius Pilate. Christians should know this person. (The cheerleader was Christian too. That is what hurt the most.)

Pontius. Pilate.

Having seen my undefeated record blitzed to bits, I was gutted. It was one of the few moments in my life where I was so choked up with anger I could not think properly.

Pontius fucking Pilate!

For about five minutes after we lost the second game, my brain synapses refused to fire. I just could not believe some of the things I had heard that evening.

Clue: I think he is some kind of superhero. Might be an old school one.

Card says: Freddie Mercury.

This is blasphemy on an unprecedented level.

But that evening was good for one thing, it brought to the fore a long held belief that the value of general knowledge (of knowing things simply for their sake) is slowly dying, not because it is hard to access it, but because it is now so easy to access information people are too lazy to access it. My reasoning is this: information is there – we don’t have to hunt for it, we don’t even have to pay for it in most cases – cool, then let the information chill.

Take Wikipedia. It’s free; anyone can access it and it has information on everything and anything. It is such a handy resource; it’s where many a university essay has been sourced – I know all university students and professors use it even though they will never admit it – and it is specific as it is general. It is an information trove for anyone with a reliable internet connection. But for some reason or other, I have the sneaky suspicion that many people don’t use it. Sure, they might scour it in desperation when an essay deadline is looming and the library is closed, but for the most part it’s like a Bible in my house; the only time it’s seen is when I clean out the bottom of my cupboard, which I only do twice a year when I come home.

The information is there, but it’s so cheap and easy to get people don’t see its value.

Growing up (for the most part) in the 90s, if I wanted information I had only one option: the library. Of course, I had access to internet, but it was dreadfully slow (when it worked). It was used only to search for images of something. Back then, the internet hadn’t become as user-friendly as it was today. If I wanted to learn more about Greek mythology, it meant tramping down to the library and finding a book about it. After tramping in the hot Namibian sun to get to the library, I was damned if I was not going to find the book and read whatever it happened to contain.

Information, back then, came at a price. It wasn’t a steep price, but it was a price nonetheless; it ensured that getting information had some static friction a person had to overcome, it wasn’t just handed out. Because of this, there was a certain rewarding feeling I got when I finished reading a book.

After the late 90s, things started changing; it became a lot easier to access a whole lot of information in a smaller amount of time, especially specific information. If you wanted to know exactly who Theseus was, you simply typed the name in the Google search bar and read about Theseus. You didn’t have to stumble through a book that contained tales of Jason and his Argonauts, Odysseus or Daedalus and Icarus. You didn’t even have to read about Theseus and the Minotaur (which was horribly portrayed in Immortals,by the way), you just got Theseus. Plain and simple.

Of course, there would be links to more information, but who clicks on those links once they actually find what it is that they are looking for?

Information was there. At the click of a button. Neatly compartmentalised. Specialised.

It was not a bad thing, but it did get rid of the fun of stumbling across other pieces of information by accident. The drive to make it easier for people to find exactly what it is that they wanted in the shortest amount of time quickly replaced the need to be able to look for information from multiple sources and then compile a general understanding of it (or a specialised one as the case may be).

Pulling from the Greek mythology example, in 1999 while in sixth grade, I had a project that required me to do a presentation on the Zeus, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. I didn’t have Wikipedia. It meant sifting through a fair amount of encyclopaedias in the Windhoek Public Library (which has been closed for the past four years to date) and reading some interesting (and some boring) books about the great Greek myths. I learned about Zeus, but I came away with other cool stories too. Those stories didn’t really get me anywhere at the time, although they did make daydreams a lot more interesting, but they sure did come in handy when it came looking for metaphors. For a month after my trip to the library, I stumbled across words in the English language that had Greek origins.

Knowing a few of those stories cannot hurt any prospective 30 Seconds player.

General knowledge is vital for navigating today’s world. And for winning 30 Seconds games. People often think of general knowledge as ways for nerds to get ahead in life, but it’s more than that. Everything has become so interconnected it is impossible to find one branch of human life that is not influenced by another; fashion borrows from music, music from films, films from books, books from Twitter. The fun really starts when you can trace the origin of an idea in a different field and the way it mutates into something else as it crosses different academic and social borders.

For many people, the Lady Gaga “monster claw” seemed original and cute. For many Kwaito lovers, it was a rip-off. Mzekezeke did it years ago in his “Akekh’ Ugogo” music video. The world won’t know that.

The status quo that each aspect of human life, say medicine for example, can exist by itself has taken a hammering over the past two years. Economies realise that they depend not just on one singular understanding of the world but many (Sir Ken Robinson said this). It’s no longer journalists, comedians and politicians that need to know the capital cities of random countries for their trade. Something that happened in Seoul (South Korea) has an effect thousands of miles to the West in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso); you won’t understand it unless you pick up a newspaper or two.

On a more personal level, general knowledge is just good way of making sense of the world. Knowing a little bit of everything allows you to see the world on more than just a superficial level; it allows you to laugh at smart adverts, or enjoy complex and thematically dense masterpieces like Forrest Gump which are loaded with so many historical references you need to watch it three times to pick all of them out.

It’s a handy conversation starter. I won’t talk to a girl who starts a conversation with, “Crap weather we’re having today, right?” But if she switches up her game and says “Those cumulonimbus clouds are wetter than Paris Hilton in night vision goggles” it changes things. Clouds, pop culture and Paris Hilton in one sentence; that’s marriage material right there.

With schools and universities under pressure to churn out matriculants and graduates in record time, academic curriculum are becoming thinner and more specialised. My high school used to have a general knowledge quiz once a term (which is where I saw @mekondjo had 30 Seconds talent), by the time I left, such things were urban legends. There is not enough time in the school calendar to nourish children’s curiosities; everything is standardised to get as many children out of the door as possible. General knowledge is the first instance in which children are allowed to link seemingly unrelated pieces of information into more complex ideas. Law, medicine, politics, art history, biology – whatever it is children (and adults) need to read a little bit on everything. Now more than ever.

It’s an all-purpose condiment, general knowledge, like salt or pepper or mayonnaise. You never know who is coming to dinner so it’s always good to have some nearby.

If for nothing else, knowing that Andrea Bocelli is not a type of pasta will prevent me from having to take out a contract on you when we play 30 Seconds. That should be a good reason to pick up something and read.

As a bare minimum, just know that Herpes is not a Greek philosopher.