Monday, November 4, 2013

Sound of Silence

In any confabulating group of any size, the conversation inexplicably lapses into awkward silence every now and then. Somehow, no one has anything at all to say. There is a superstition that this happens 20 minutes past the hour and another than it happens every 7 minutes. Neither is true. There is nothing magical about the numbers 20 or 7, but conversational pauses commonly occur several times an hour, so both myths seem almost right.

Some people try to explain the lapses in terms of evolutionary biology. The argument is that that our ancestors sitting around the fire had to shut up occasionally to listen for predators; groups that didn’t have frequent silences got eaten. Maybe, but there is no practical way to test this. In principle, I suppose we could set two groups out in the wild amid top line predators: one (presumably supplied with scripts) would be instructed to talk continuously, and the other would be told to chat and pause naturally. Then we could wait to see how many of each are eaten, but, ethical considerations aside, finding volunteers might be difficult.

Talk generally rekindles when someone finally feels more uncomfortable staying silent than blurting out some inanity. However, there are ways to shorten the pauses. Among them is a product called Chat Pack: questions to spark conversations. I received one as a gift a while back. I haven’t yet used this pack of cards, but the thought occurs to open it now and surmise what conversations might be stirred by the first dozen questions– no cheating. Why a dozen? More might make this blog too long and fewer might not be a fair sample. So, here we go.

1. If you could enter a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby, what would you name your horse?
What? Really? No, that’s not the name. I’m just not sure of what a conversation starter this is. But, I’ll play. How about “Biggest Loser”? The critter couldn’t fail to meet or (most likely) exceed expectations.

2. If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want people to remember you for most of all?
Once again, “What?” and “Really?” You know, under those circumstances, it doesn’t really matter much. One of my mom’s sayings was, “Give your flowers to people while they’re alive.” I suppose the same would go for tomatoes.

3. What is your favorite saying or quotation?
I’ve always been fond of Benjamin Disraeli’s ambiguous note to an author who sent him an unsolicited copy: “Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.”

4. Forget about soft sounds like babbling brooks, gentle showers, and warbling birds. What is your favorite loud sound?
Bass guitar. Motorhead would do.

5. If you could change the ending to any movie you have ever seen, what movie would it be and how would you alter the way it ends?
Ok, I’ve got one: AI: Artificial Intelligence. The ending is much too treacle-ish. How about giving David a robotic mom? He then can reject her because she is not real.

6. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being not at all and 10 being very much so), how superstitious are you?
Split answer here. Intellectually, 1. I’d be lying though, to say that I never feel any unease about “tempting fate” in some way. So, emotionally, 4. It used to be higher.

7. If you were writing an autobiography, what would be the book’s title (besides your name)?
The blog site title would work for that, too: Richard’s Pretension.

8. What is the best $100 you ever spent in your life?
Not on a public blog. Maybe in private, depending on the company.

9. What is something you always used to love to do that, during the past year or two, you feel like you’ve outgrown or lost interest in doing?
Dating. You know the old saying, “The chase is sweeter than the catch?” No it’s not. The catch is fine, but the chase is too much like work.

10. Through the use of a time machine, you are traveling back to the year 1850. You may take with you one, and only one, product or invention from the modern era. What would you take with you to impress and awe our forebears?
First we must assume that my time machine is the only one in existence (ever) with access to 1850 earth. Otherwise, I’ll have to compete with all those other time travelers hawking their goods and endlessly altering the time line.

That assumption allowed, there is no point in showing up with a technology far beyond the scientific understanding of the audience. An iPhone, for example, couldn’t connect to a network anyway. Besides, can you explain properly how it works? I can’t. Electronics in general are out, since they are beyond the industrial capacity of 1850 to duplicate. Something ahead of the time, but fully comprehensible to the natives, would be best. A simple compact internal combustion engine would do – one of the old fully mechanical ones, not one of the new ones constantly tweaked by computer chips: maybe a Chevy straight-6 circa 1950. Any number of technologies could follow from that, and the principles would have been graspable in 1850 – even for the electric starter, since Sturgeon’s electromagnet dates to 1825 and Faraday’s dynamo to 1831. The engine might as well be brought back inside a Chevy.

11. Which punctuation mark would best describe your personality?
Semicolon. It tentatively completes a thought, but keeps the options for the sentence open.

12. Aside from any family occurrence (marriage, special anniversary, birth of a child, etc.), what event or accomplishment would you consider the highlight of your life so far?
See #8.
Would these cards work to break the silence? Most of them probably would, I think. Thanksgiving is coming up, and the usual suspects will be at my table. I’ll keep the cards handy for when our larynxes suddenly cease to buzz.

Pulp Fiction: Uncomfortable Silences

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