Beware the Conversation Weasel

I'm way too cute for it not to be all about me.

In 2011, The Art of Manliness published a sweet piece on Conversational Narcissism.  It’s an interesting read, and the tenets will be familiar to many i.e. “Last month I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in forever…. Having both read and written about how to be an effective and charismatic conversationalist, I followed the old dictum of listening more than talking and asking the other person engaging questions about themselves. This is supposed to charm your conversation partner. I guess it worked because my friend talked about himself for an hour straight and didn’t ask me a single question.

Sound a little familiar?  What’s neat about the article is that sociologist Charles Derber (whose book The Pursuit of Attention inspires much of the piece) has deconstructed some of the ways people masterfully – and subtly – monopolize the conversation back to ego numero uno.

Take the following two examples:

Example 1:

James:   I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob:      Oh yeah?  What models have you looked at?

Example 2:

James:    I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob:        Oh yeah?  I’m thinking about buying a new car too.
James:    Really?
Rob:        Yup, I just test drove a Mustang yesterday and it was awesome.

Woah!!  Did you catch that weaselly move in Example 2?  Rob, henceforth “Conversation Weasel”, has sneakily moved the attention away from James and placed it squarely on himself, in a verbal strategy Derber calls “shift-response” (as opposed to the polite and engaging “support-response” demonstrated in Example 1).  The post goes on to elaborate on a number of fascinating ways Conversation Weasel can leave the listener high and dry while running away madly with the conversation football.

The author offers a nice little insight into the why of this, by stating: “In a time where a lot of the old social supports people relied upon have disappeared, people have become starved for attention. They bring this hunger to their conversations, which they see as competitions in which the winner is able to keep the attention on themselves as much as possible. And this is turning the skill of conversation-making into a lost art.”

P.S. This whole discussion seems rather evocative of the conch shell symbolism in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In this book, a group of shipwrecked boys decide that “he who holds the conch” has the authority to speak without interruption, and that anyone within the group has the right to the conch.  The conch in this case helps to ensure a degree of egalitarianism and collectivism to how group decisions are discussed and made.  However, as the story unfolds, group structure breaks down, the rules of engagement disintegrate, the conch is shattered, and anarchy reigns supreme.

Now.. I’m not saying that Conversation Weasel sets out to create anarchy, but it’s mighty tricky to build something together when we’re all grabbing for the conch.

Pandas: Available in black, white, and shades of grey

Low cal diet: A curious taste for bamboo

BlogTO recently posted about the two cute pandas coming to the Toronto zoo on a five-year loan (Wouldn’t it be better if the pandas just stayed home?). The gist of that post was: (1) why spend all that money on pandas when there are so many other native species that could use the funding; (2) some feel the zoo is overly optimistic about how much revenue the pandas will bring in given their ~$1 million/yr price tag (never mind the $200K price tag for imported bamboo!) and (3) to recognize international goodwill between China and other countries via live bear currency seems a little strange (a.k.a. the bizarre emergence of panda diplomacy).

In this complicated world, it seems like the more one looks into something, the less black and white it is – unlike our furry subject, ironically.  Consider a few brief aspects (to do with pandas, less so with international diplomacy):

  • So few:  At one point the panda came very close to extinction and the species is still one of the rarest on the planet. I had no idea that there are only an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 pandas left in the wild, and about 240 to 333 in zoos (estimates vary depending on source).  That’s not a lot of pandas is it?
  • Two day window: Despite the huge difficulty in mating pandas in captivity as well as in the wild (the female is only in estrous for two days a year), zoos have been successful in increasing the population of captive pandas from 150 to 333.
  • Panda “loans” can help:  Loans of giant pandas between China and other countries — panda diplomacy — costs hosting countries up to $1M U.S.D. a year.  In some cases a portion of these loan fees are directed to conservation efforts for the giant panda and its habitat.
  • Who decides?  Some conservationists have controversially expressed that the giant panda is too expensive to save and that funds would be better spent on protecting “less expensive” animals and their habitat.   Giant pandas are considered unlikely to thrive in the wild due to habitat decline and their proclivity for massive amounts of low-calorie bamboo. Arguments for concentrating on our own backyard (i.e. own local species and habitat) are convincing.
  • Someone’s got to lead the charge:  Yet, others argue that the panda is a keystone species – and, as a flagship icon of wildlife conservation – does enormous amounts for the protection of habitat and other less known species that similarly depend on this habitat, as well as the conservation movement in general.

And there’s a lot more where that came from. It’s a complicated world out there, and it’s sure not getting any simpler.  However, there is one aspect in which many agree, and that is that the future chances of these animals flourishing in the wild is slim (for example, in the wild breeding pandas need about 30km2 of land to support them – but most populations are now isolated in narrow 1.2km-wide fragments).  This means that regardless of how well we succeed at captive breeding, without immediate broader scale and significant habitat protection, the only place we’re going to be seeing some of these animals in the future is behind bars – and that goes for a lot more species than just pandas.

At this pace of development, many of our global brethren are purring, whirring, walking, and running full-tilt into an animated parody of Sabre-Tooth Tiger and Woolly Mammoth exhibits…. and no matter what side of the exhibit you’re on there’s something terribly sad about that.

Ant Pompeii

You’ve likely already heard of the giant ant super-city found in Brazil.  If not, it’s pretty incredible looking and fantastically huge – check out this DailyMail link to see images of the structure.  This eerie and highly alien city includes agricultural gardens, highways, waste disposal areas, and organized ventilation shafts –  all distributed in a labyrinthine order of pods and stalks.

Leafcutter ants, the original colony, are food cultivators par excellence – you can see them beavering away in the short clip above (sorry about my unsteady hand – mucho coffee that morning). Basically they’re collecting leaves that are brought back to the colony and cultivated to grow fungus in the garden areas.

Sounds a little like organized agriculture to me.

To see the final structure, scientists poured ten tonnes of concrete into the ant city which then solidified.  Although the colony was apparently abandoned, one has to wonder what the ants think about their very own Pompeii for posterity.

At the quiet centre of crisis

Don't even mention a point to this guy

There are some that say that in average, everyday situations man takes his existence for granted – he does not question it because “it is unproblematic and as tasteless as the ever present saliva in our mouths”.  That is to say in the course of an average, take-out-the -recycling-and-pay-the-bills, day of life the real heart and plume of our existence is largely unexamined (i.e., it’s a bit tricky to be deep, all the time).

However, in extreme situations the whole trend of our consciousness changes.  As per Stern (1967), it is in those extreme situations that we call crisis that man asks himself the ultimate questions of the meaning, the essence, and the value of human existence.  The birth of existentialism for example occurred during the ebb and flow of two world wars, when crisis existed on an unprecedented global level – now, if that isn’t inwardly directed inquiry I’m not sure what it is!

Toxoplasmo: Zombies Among Us

I wonder what these little guys are plotting..

So there’s this pretty funky parasite that some researchers think gets into our brains and subtly manipulates our personality to engage in self-destructive behaviour (see articles in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and another similar example in Scientific American).

Apparently this parasite – Toxoplasmo gondii – might be subtly working on the connections in our brains to change our responses to situations, and possibly be contributing to car crashes, promiscuous behaviour, and certain mental disorders.

In rats for example, the parasite actually compels rats to go play with cats!

Makes one wonder…

Yoga is Scary

So I tried yoga a few weeks ago.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, you know, get more bendy.  All was going well, until the call for backwards-facing-cobra or something to that effect.  Unfortunately what I heard was something more like upside-down-manatee, or ungulate-grazing-in-reverse. As my neck hasn’t been the same since, evidently I wasn’t either of those two mammals in a past life.

More importantly, has anyone else noticed how grumpy some yoga aficionados look when you spot them doing ‘normal’ stuff like taking out the garbage?  One would think serenity would prevail..

Mark my words, there’s something afoot.

“There is no art except for and by others”

In his essay What is Literature, Sartre theorizes that literature and other art is a social phenomena, in that an author writes for the reader and needs the reader for a complete performance of his or her work.  As per Stern (1967), “all the words of a book could be read one by one and still the meaning of the work would not emerge, were it not that the reader’s mind gives it meaning”.

Sartre calls this a ‘re-invention’ saying that “it is the conjoint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind.”  Therefore..  There is no art except for and by others..

On Ortega..

As per the Spanish philosopher Ortega “una vida en disponibilidad es major negacion de si misma que la muerta..”

Translated:  “A disposable life is a greater negation of itself than death”


In this sense, Ortega (like Sartre) argues that we have a “moral necessity to commitment to a definite project”, that is, our actions define who we are and it’s not so much the action that counts as the commitment to it.

Such philosophy also considers all commitments to be morally equivalent, so long as action is taken.  Huh… Does anyone else see a problem with that?