Darwin’s Theorem


Science, religion, evolution, romance, action, siphonophors!

Darwin’s Theorem is a story about stories(the working title for a long time was “Metastory”) that’s also a mystery, a romance, an adventure, and various other things besides. Not quite science fiction, excessively didactic… think of it as “Dan Brown meets ‘Origin of Species’.”

If you like to see plot, action and strong characters deployed in the pursuit of big, speculative ideas, you should check it out!

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There was only one catch…

The civil service is the permanent government of Canada. This is why senior civil service positions have titles like “Permanent Undersecretary for Whatever”.

The purpose of Parliament is to exercise political control over the civil service. This is the foundation of responsible government in Canada, as independent MP Brent Rathgeber explains in his book “Irresponsible Government”.

Parliament exercises this control by selecting a person with support from a sufficiently large number of MPs to form a cabinet, which constitutes the executive government that oversees the permanent government. Our language is muddied and muddled on these issues–we tend to call the cabinet “the government” in some contexts, and the civil service bureaucracy “the government” in others–but the separation of powers and functions is clear, at least in theory.

It is the purpose of the cabinet to give orders to the permanent government. It is the purpose of Parliament to hold the cabinet to account on behalf of the citizens.

None of this is novel, exceptional or controversial.

The control the cabinet (in reality the PMO) exercises over the civil service is political control. This is by design and intention. To suggest otherwise is to fundamentally misapprehend the nature of power in Canada: civil servants are servants. Politicians control them in accordance with the policies of the Party in power. There is political control over the civil service. To say this is a bad thing is to say that Canada’s governance model of representative democracy and responsible government is a bad thing. That’s an opinion that would take rather a lot of defending.

Of necessity, this reality of political control creates a tension for individuals in the civil service. Their job is to carry out the political orders of the elected politicians who ultimately are supposed to act as the people’s representatives. But at the same time, they themselves are citizens, and have political interests of their own.

As citizens, they have the right to speak out. As civil servants, they have a duty to execute the policies of their political masters.

There is a second tension in play, between our public and private lives. Once upon a time, private expression was just that. There was no real means of publicly disseminating anyone’s private opinions, and on the rare occasions that it happened there were frequently negative consequences in the person’s public life.

Twenty years ago a civil servant might have written a letter to the Globe and Mail that was critical of government policy without a whole lot of consequences, even though such an action would be a violation of the code of ethics they had agreed to as a condition of their employment.

Back in the day, how would anyone know what Joe Blogs day job was?

It has always been the case that employers may dismiss employees for violating the terms of their employment. In my case I have a few things I’m not permitted to do if I want to keep my job–mostly not doing anything to damage the reputation of my employer. This is neither onerous nor unusual, although there is certainly a place for the public interest to step in and stop some kinds of systemic discrimination.

Furthermore, I can say in private whatever I damned well feel like about my employer. Except… what is this thing, “private”? You can say anything you want in private, but as soon as you’ve said something it is no longer private in world where a cell phone video or a simple, heavily-promoted rumour can wipe out a career.

The problem is not that employers or the government have some power to respond to the public utterances of employees or civil servants. It’s that there is an increasingly small sphere that can be called “private” and an increasing large “not-private” realm that we’d like to pretend isn’t quite public either.

For anyone with a significant presence on social media, it’s almost trivial to find out who employs them and a good deal else besides. The practical, technologically enforced division between our public and private lives is breaking down. This is not a new observation, but it turns out my reflection on this case has led me to a deeper understanding of what it means.

George Orwell said in “Burmese Days”:

“It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahib’s code.”

Orwell, politically myopic as he was, ascribed this to the narrow confines of British Imperialism. Today we know differently: opinions on every subject of any conceivable importance are dictated by the code of the mob, where the mob is guided by whatever happens to outrage them at the moment. There is no need for the Party or the Empire to guide the mob or give it power. It will find its own rules and is motivated by nothing but hate and the desire of its members to to feel righteous and powerful.

As in Orwell’s Burma, this righteousness is justified as being necessary for the edification of the less enlightened.

Today the mob is outraged over a civil servant’s being disciplined due to a not-private expression of opinion on the government of the day. But tomorrow it will be some other not-private opinion. A scientist’s failed joke. A person’s membership on a clandestine dating website. Something else.

The important thing is that “not-private” is different from “public”. By “public” I mean an opinion that is published deliberately by the person who holds it. This little missive is public. If I password protected it then it would be “not-private”. Only if I kept it entirely offline would it be private”, and even then, if it’s on a computer connected to the ‘Net it might reasonably be expected to see the light of day sometime.

We are all now living in Orwell’s Burma, where almost anything we say or do can become “not-private” in the twinkling of an eye. It is this situation–the vanishing of our private spaces–and not some particular nefariousness on the part of the Harper government, that has created the current furor over the song Harperman.

This is not a political issue, but a human issue, and it’s one we’ll be living with for a long time. The bad news is that we’ve been here before.

One of the things we learn from anthropologists and explorers who have lived in pre-political societies is that privacy is non-existent. Everyone knows who is having sex with whom, everyone knows who is on which side of what question. Everyone knows who wants war, who wants peace. Lies have a very short half-life, unless their “truth” is sustained by violence–frequently mob violence–against anyone who dares question them.

Privacy, like money and government, has always been something of a shared delusion. Secrecy has an objective, information-theoretic reality, but “private” and “secret” are not the same: what happens in an outhouse is not secret. It is, however, private.

For the last few thousand years people living in political states have enjoyed a modicum of privacy, and never moreso than in Protestant northern Europe, thanks to a few centuries spent torturing and killing each other over religion in the public sphere. This relatively high level of privacy was made possible by the technological conditions of the political state before the Internet: effective top-down control allowed large populations to live with relatively high density and moderate mobility. Lack of communication technology created many peaceful shadows where private lives could go unbothered.

This is no longer the case. The tools of government are much the same, but communications technology now casts a hot glaring light into all the groves and glades where private lives once sheltered.

We haven’t even begun to figure out how to deal with this, but the fundamental problem is not that Stephen Harper is a vindictive control freak (although he is) who has led an irresponsible government (although he has) that has implemented dreadful policies (although they are). It’s that the world is full of vindictive control freaks, and we no longer have any private places to stand where they will not notice us, unless we cut ourselves off from the incredible boon that is social media.

Analysis without publicly testable prediction is just wanking, so here’s a prediction: when Stephen Harper is gone from the government of Canada there will be governments led by the Parties pretending outrage over the treatment of the Tony Turner today that will be doing everything they can to discipline civil servants whose own not-private opinions have got loose in the world. If that happens, my analysis becomes more plausible. If it does not, my analysis becomes less plausible. Let’s come back in five or ten years and see!

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Improve Intensive: part two

Joe Bill taught a course called “Your Power Improv Toolkit” this past weekend at the VTSL’s Improv Comedy Institute. There should be a “previous post” button that takes you to the first day’s summary up there somewhere. This is a brain-dump of day two, although I don’t have a whole lot of brain left to dump.

I went for a run last night, followed by a swim. The water was damned cold, but I’d made the commitment so I went for it. I didn’t mention this when we went ’round the class in the morning about what we’d done in the evening. Why not? I frequently kind of freeze during these things. I understand why–I hate being the focus of attention because once upon a time that was a dangerous thing to be–but it’s about time I got over that, and this is the environment to do it in.

The morning was some discussion of stuff from emotional eating of improv donuts as a way of sublimating problematic emotions to the notion of a driver/passenger balance in the scene, which I’d had some confusion about. The idea of “passenger as [emotional or interpersonal] navigator” I found especially useful. There is more than one way to contribute to a scene. Also, ways to break the driver/passenger dynamic. “I have to tell you…” is a good way to break from passenger-mode. The passenger can make the driver change.

There was some discussion of resistance and flexibility that was consistent with one of the ways I use poetry: poetry treats resistance as prose and routes around it.

There was some interesting discussion of women in improv getting sexist nonsense laid on them and how to deal with it. It’s not something most of us ever intend to do, but it does happen and how to deal with it matters. The notion of adding a happy commentary is a useful one: “I’m SO glad misogyny is alive and well here in the 21st century!” The specific issue of trans was not mentioned but I can’t help but think some of the same ideas might work when transphobic stuff comes out.

We did a bunch of non-sequitur exercises which I found painful and difficult, and therefore useful. As always, I view these things through my poetic sensibilities, and I’m really good at generating non-sequiturs as a poet. So why do I suck at it as an improviser? Because my brain isn’t in the right place, because I don’t have the trick of getting it there under those circumstances. But today I saw where I needed to be–which is a place I’m happy in and familiar with–from where I was. I didn’t quite get there in a stable sense, but any non-sequitur exercise where I come out with, “I think my face is on sideways” is getting pretty close. Non-sequiturs make sense in any sufficiently surreal universe, and I know how to imagine those. It’s just a matter of getting my head straight (or possibly sideways).

We did some scenes where two players started up-stage and came down talking about something based on a word given by the instructor, then on a signal turned to face each other and started to interact. I had a blast with this. The word my partner–who is an incredibly experienced improvisor whose work I really admire–and I got was “poetry”, and we ended up in a scene engaged in mutual amplification of the idea of poetry as a sexual, rhythmic, orgasmic act. Since that’s pretty much how I personally view poetry, it was a huge amount of fun and deeply gratifying on many levels.

The second run of that exercise involved the same thing but continuing to talk over each other for the first fifteen seconds or so after turning to face each other. The word this time for me and a different partner was “hockey” and I channeled a character based on a woman I used to work with who hated how much it cost for her kids to play the game. My partner played a fan. It was fun: good solid conflict in a head-on meeting.

After lunch we did the scariest thing that turned out to be the most fun and that still has my head kind of reeling: ten minute, two-person scenes, with partners called up. The first two scenes in particular had beautiful slow starts, letting the relationship develop organically. That made me feel much more comfortable with the idea of letting the scene go and not being too concerned for its future. It would take care of us and we would take care of it.

Because Joe had been observing us for two days, he called Carrie and me up together. We started a scene with no suggestion from the audience. I was adjusting my clothing, she was cutting flowers and putting them in a vase. Snooty attitudes followed. We explored around some ideas–was I not stylish enough for her, was she spending too much money–when it turned out the flowers she was cutting were an endangered species (I had seen a thing some some rare Georgia orchid that looks like a little person a few days ago) and she dismissed it as irrelevant to “people like us”. We were starting to go in the direction of laws and morals being irrelevant to “people like us” when Joe gave us the direction to take the scene that way. Having explicit permission to do so was important, at least to me. I likely wouldn’t have introduced the human trafficking thing without it.

We played a game of escalating despicability, ending up with a plan to go club baby seals while high on meth and then…

There’s no way I’d have gone there in my normal mode. The audience loved it, which was astounding.

There are things about it–like so much else in this experience–that I’m still processing. It unsettles me. Being unsettled is good. Picking apart the reasons for being unsettled is useful. Some of them I can identify already and are simply part of the condition of being me. Others are more flexible. The experience is going to be good for me as a writer, and it also confirmed for me that long-form narrative improv is where I want to go as a performer. Carrie and I have talked about doing the “Duo-prov” course at Instant in the new year, and that’s become a priority for me.

One thing I thought to myself before our scene started was that I had to choose a character that wasn’t too much like me. Someone else I could sustain pretty much indefinitely. After two days of tight internal emotional focus, I had too much of my own stuff too close to the surface to be comfortable playing anyone very much like me.

This is the interesting balance actors and writers and artists of all kinds engage in. We’ve all got stuff going on inside that can’t come out in its raw form. There’s just no way to do it. But we can use that to power all kinds of processes that can bring that stuff out transformed into art, and the closer to the raw stuff the better, until it goes over the edge and passes from profound and moving and beautiful to stupid and dangerous and ugly.

Dancing on that edge is where I want to be as an artist. This course taught me all kinds of techniques and skills for getting closer to it without falling over. I’m wrung out and exhausted emotionally. It’s going to take months–at least–for the lessons to percolate down to the places where they will find a place to fit. But it feels good. It feels like I am not wrong to want to pursue writing and poetry and performance the way I do.

I’ve always been attracted to risk. There is enough risk here for a lifetime. And that’s good, because I have the rest of a lifetime available.

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Improv Intensive: part one

One of the incredible privileges of living where I do is we get some of the best people in the world coming through to share their wisdom.

Joe Bill taught a course called “Your Power Improv Toolkit” this past weekend at the VTSL’s Improv Comedy Institute. It was an amazing experience.

The class was 14 people covering a wide range of experience, from relatively new improvisors to people with many years of professional experience. There’s something to be said for a teacher who knows their stuff so well that they can make it accessible and useful to people at such different levels.

I went in with few expectations. This turns out to be a good thing because whatever my expectations might have been, they wouldn’t have come close to the reality.

I’m jotting this down from my notes and my memory, trying to make some sense of what I’ve learned so far. It’s a personal brain-dump. If you find it useful, great! If not, you are never going to get back the time you spent reading it. Sorry.

Saturday started with a bunch of short open two-person scenes, with people being called up in pairs. The scene lengths were between 2 seconds and one minute (I think) and they were done in groups, so everyone did a thirty second scene, then everyone did a five second scene, then everyone did a forty-five second scene, and so on. There were a lot of them. No warm-up, just quick introductions and off we went.

The class was about half people I know and half people I’ve seen perform but hadn’t met. It was a tad intimidating to be learning alongside people who are so much more experienced than me. In my own professional life I’m used to being at or near the top of the food chain. It’s both liberating and humbling to be reminded there are a lot of other food chains out there that I don’t even register on. Then again, theatre people are generally generous, kind, and accepting, and improv people doubly so, so it was a welcoming and supportive environment.

My goal in this course was to learn to look less far ahead, to let the scene develop organically and not let my inner writer try to drive it. This means trusting my scene partners more and taking smaller steps myself in moving the scene forward. It turns out there is a lot of stuff that we learned today that really helped.

One of the things I noticed about the short scenes is I found the very short ones less anxiety-inducing than the longer ones. A two second scene has one idea that is done and gone. A one minute scene requires some development, some co-ordination. I like and am drawn to narrative improv, and as such I care a lot more about longer scenes. I feel like there’s something important to me in them that I can screw up. A scene of a few seconds, on the other hand, is just a throw-away. If I screw it up nothing of value (to me) has been lost.

Joe gave some interesting discussion of a particular set of psychological axes relating to how we act and react in the world. One observation he made: “There is only declaring and reacting.” This is a reasonable taxonomy of human action insofar as scenes are concerned: it is mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive, which is the basic desideratum of any taxonomic classification system. I’m a big fan of taxonomies: they give us language within a given topic, and language is one of the most useful tools for thought.

There is also an axis of focus, which can be either task-oriented or relationship-oriented. I’m less convinced this a mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive categorization, but it’s good enough for going on with.

Unsurprisingly, I tend toward task-orientation and declarative rather than reactive style. People with task-orientation tend to view the world has hostile and those with a declarative orientation want to see concrete results as a way of protecting themselves from that hostility. People with a more reactive orientation want assurance, and are more conscientious.

One of the things Joe emphasized is that these are questions of tendency and modality rather than identity. My natural drift is toward a task/declarative orientation, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be focused more reactively on interpersonal stuff.

But understanding our tendencies allows us to “accessorize” them appropriately with different approaches when called for.

There was some interesting discussion of the semantics of improv, contrasting the subjective, actorly approach to a more objective, writerly or directorly perspective. This makes sense to me as an actor and writer and (thankfully rarely) a director.

As a pure physicist who has worked in various areas of applied physics, I came to identify what I called “the Lore” of any applied field, where people working in the field treated as foundational some special cases of more general principles. I see the objective/directorly and subjective/actorly perspectives as being “the Lore” of practical improv. Beneath both lies the story, and beneath the story lies the emotional connection and the human condition.

The eternal question of narrative vs game was given its traditional airing. I liked this comment: “Narrative is a discovery proposition, not an engineering proposition.” I’m not completely sold on that, but it fits nicely with Stephen King’s attitude toward story that gave me a really interesting perspective on writing.

As someone who is an engineer and who has worked in the “discovery” business in several sciences, I don’t necessarily see the two as entirely at odds with each other. Engineering, like science, is more of an art than a science. But engineering relies much more heavily on the known and the well-trodden path than science or discovery does, so there are important differences as well. In terms of freshness, of novelty, a discovery-focus brings a uniquely personal element to the creation of art that is important.

What is character: “How you do what you do is who you are.” This was called out as a riff on Aristotle’s famous dictum that we are what we do habitually.

Emotion is one of the most important elements of the “how we do what we do”. Imbue an action with an emotion and you are well on your way to a character. Knowing how you are takes you a good ways toward knowing who you are.

The next phase of practice involved emotional scenes. We chose partners at random-ish, spread out through the room, closed our eyes, chose an emotion, and on command raised our eyes and simply observed our scene partner. They had chosen an emotion too, which they were expressing. What followed was a dialog of emotion between characters, without a word spoken, for 10 to 30 seconds (hard to tell how long) and then we were told to “continue the conversation you are already having”. It flowed very naturally for me, and I had some excellent, connected scenes with people I’ve played with before but not necessarily felt fully connected with.

“Listening is a willingness to be changed by your scene partner(s).” You don’t actually have to change. But you have to be willing, and you have to show that.

Another idea was the “golden time” of the first 30 seconds of the scene: 15 to decide who you are, and 15 to second-guess yourself and screw it up, or double-down and commit come hell or high water.

Self-acceptance (for your character) is key. Make a choice, accept it, run with it. The second fifteen seconds is too often “the time it takes to decide we hate what we have initially done.” It is reasonable that we check in with ourselves and be critical of our choices in our offstage lives, because that lets us avoid going to far down mistaken roads. On-stage, taking a mistaken road can be hilarious for the audience. Good drama is made out of bad decisions. Ergo, onstage, there are no bad decisions. There is only failure to decide.

The use of silence is important. Don’t be afraid to be silent, and to emote in silence.

My own big idea from the emotion-scene exercise: “Narrative is a theoretical account of the empirical reality of emotion.” This didn’t make a lot of sense to anyone else, which is OK. I’m an experimental physicist with a decent grounding in philosophy who is strongly dismissive of the Platonic-realist nonsense that dominates theory, which says the universe has a “real” mathematical structure that in some ill-defined sense “precedes” its merely physical form. This is bollocks: empirical reality comes first, and math runs to catch up, because it is nothing but an account of what we find in the world. It is a compact, efficient, useful and powerful account, but nothing more. It is a map, not a plan: it records what we see, it does not guide some mythical Builder.

This matters a lot to me because it gives emotion primacy over narrative. It fills in an important blank in my (as yet unpublished) theory of story. It changes my understanding of narrative and places it in the context of ideas I’ve thought about a great deal for thirty years: the relationship between theory and experiment in the sciences. It is probably completely meaningless to anyone else. C’est la vie. [I’ve since encountered at least one person who gets it. Yay!]

Other experiences: in one emotion-scene exercise we were told to say the same thing over three times, each person going back and forth. So for me and my partner in that scene it went like this:

Me: “I love you.”
Her: “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
Me: “I love you.”
Her: “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
Me: “I love you.”
Her: “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

By the third repetition the whole dynamic of the scene had been established. What we said was the same, but how we said it changed in response to the previous times. She was leaving, I had come to the airport to declare my love. It wasn’t all clear after those opening repetitions, but it all unfolded as if it was clear, so something happened between us. It was actually kind of amazing.

The other emotion-scenes were much the same: knowing how I was told me who I was, and my scene partner was no longer a puzzle to be deciphered but a real person in the real world of our shared delusion who had to be reacted to, and nothing more. My mental relation to the process completely changed. I’m good at getting into character, but letting my own consciousness sink out of sight to become the subconscious of the character–which is how I was trained as an actor–has been tough for me in improv. Focusing on the emotional state of the character made it much easier.

Various jotted notes (assume anything clever is from Joe, anything stupid is my commentary/mangling):

Suspicion and curiosity: two sides of the same coin, both interested, one hostile, one accepting. As ways of engaging another mind the ease with which they morph into each other makes them powerful.

Of the Four F’s of evolutionary biology–feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproduction–on the latter two are really important in scene work, because they are the ones that matter in relationships. There is a Fifth F–friendship–that probably belongs on the list. Aristotle again.

I/You/We: keeping the focus on these things keeps you in the scene and with your partner.

Obligation and inspiration are anti-correlated. This is an interesting observation, and appears at odds with the notion that your focus should be taking care of your scene partner, but I don’t think it actually is. “Taking care” is not an obligation, it’s a purpose. Hooray for semantics.

“You always/never/etc…”: these are passive constructions. React with direct emotion, not indirect reference to the past.

Recognize opportunities but don’t take them all. Be choosy. Take the one that seems best, or none at all if none are needed. Art is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.

Use that second fifteen seconds to react to what your scene partner gives you in the first fifteen seconds, rather than second-guessing yourself.

If you’re in a bad scene, figure out what is making it bad and do more of it.

Don’t play to the top of your character’s intelligence, play to the top of their integrity. This is consistent with my belief in the value of integrity in art. Ideally there should be one over-riding principle that guides the whole thing, although ensembles do have a place.

“Taking from your partner is an aggressive way to listen” or something like that. The idea that you are active in taking ideas from your partner, not just passively accepting them.

Suspend ego, judgement and fear.

Be ready to be grateful. Stillness plus silence plus gratitude is almost always interesting.

Negativity invites a specific response. Respond with gratitude instead. It is disarming. Disarmed is vulnerable. Vulnerability creates theatre.

Object work: half the speed with twice the intensity. Every object is an opportunity to express emotion.

For me: breathe less hard. This is not the first time I’ve been told this, but apparently I’m recidivating.

Look for opportunities to create and increase incongruities between words and actions, words and emotions, emotions and actions. One emotion-scene I did I chose “bliss” and it turned out the character that came with that was pushing their own life-choices on everyone else and critical of people who were taking more conventional paths through life. The incongruity added a lot of depth to the scene, and if I’d known to play it up it would have been even more fun.

Objects don’t have to be metaphors, but the audience will read them that way anyway, so don’t be afraid to imbue them with explicit metaphorical intent.

Personally, I find it hard to get away from the literal. The answer to “how to do this?” is: practice, practice, practice.

That’s a brief, unstructured summary of day one. At the end of it I was exhausted. Day two should be awesome.

More reflections on day one after day two:

Love is a topic of profound fascination to me, for reasons I have a pretty good handle on. Light might well be a topic of fascination for someone with very little ability to see.

One exercise was a repeat of the process of pairing up, choosing an emotion, and going into the scene by staring into your partner’s eyes for ten seconds or so before “continuing the conversation” in words, but in this case we were restricted to three word sentences. I love constraints like this. Form is liberating.

In that particular scene the three words “I love you” came up as well. They come up a lot in scenes I do. One of the other people in the class observed they could not say “I love you” in a scene. People are different, have different needs, backgrounds, oddities. This is what makes improv awesome.

Also, there was a final exercise on day one that started with two characters upstage. At the start of the scene they came downstage and one started object work. After ten seconds or more the other person spoke, starting the scene. That was where I became conscious of how difficult I find it to break out of the literal.

This is already way too long. More on day to next!

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Feminine Villanelle

Drifting down the channel of the river
Living life with pleasure and with ease
Striking out across the Lake of Never

Knowing that this life won’t last forever
Summer days give way to winter’s freeze
Drifting down the channel of the river

No matter how hardworking or how clever
Life will in the end drain down to lees
Striking out across the Lake of Never

Pulling on a paddle like a lever
Listening to the flowers buzz the bees
Drifting down the channel of the river

Time and chance will in a moment sever
Winter days from all the summer sees
Striking out across the Lake of Never

A beating heart that’s lighter than a feather
Floating on a sultry summer breeze
Drifting down the channel of the river
Striking out across the Lake of Never

A two syllable end-rhyme (-ev-er) is called a “feminine rhyme” for reasons entirely obscure, at least to me. In English it is a more profluent sound, tending to carry the poem forward. Single-syllable “masculine” rhymes are stronger and blunter (which sounds like some wildly sexist stereotype) as opposed to the softer edges of the “feminine” construction.

I consider this poem an interesting failure. It’s another experiment with a villanelle, but the feminine end-rhymes give it a weirdly unsatisfying finish. It was written in part as a description of a lovely weekend just past, but also influenced by the death of an old friend and colleague, a person I respected a great deal and who wasn’t so many years older than me. Maybe the open-endedness of it works in that context, but it’s not the effect I was looking for.

This is why it’s important to experiment. I would be very cautious using a feminine rhyme in a villanelle in future, but prior to writing this one I wouldn’t have guessed at the effect.

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Forms: villanelle

Beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky
there lies a quiet, still and peaceful Earth
so silently the evening stars drift by

Crows toward their distant aeries softly fly
faint sounds of children’s all-unknowing mirth
beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky

Somewhere in the dusk a baby’s cry
calls out to god a moment after birth
so silently the evening stars drift by

A moment’s joy when no one wonders why
or what this vale of tears is really worth
beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky

Shadows lengthen over grasses dry
where drought has given way to want and dearth
so silently the evening stars drift by

The end could be far distant or be nigh
hidden by the long horizon’s girth
beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky
so silently the evening stars drift by

This is an experiment in form. I’m a formal poet, and English poetry is full of interesting and odd forms. The villanelle is, like many of them, lifted from the French. Apparently they started out as relatively unstructured songs, but ended up with a very rigid structure of repeated lines and rhymes.

This is not a particularly good poem. The juxtaposition of hopeful and depressing images didn’t create the tension and contrast I was aiming for, and in the end it’s confusing and unsatisfactory. There’s aimless foreboding but nothing much is happening. What is going on here?

Still: the purpose of this blog is to fuck up forthrightly. I post a lot of stuff here that’s marginal thinking, or me trying stuff on. I believe artists ought to be more willing to produce crap. It’s how we learn, how we get better. And sometimes someone thinks are garbage is great, and that’s a decidedly surreal experience, and who doesn’t need more of those?

I’m going to experiment with the villenelle form more, as some very good poems have been written in it, but I’m not promising anything more than essays into an unfamiliar form. I’ve written thousands of sonnets and am willing to say I’m pretty good at them. It’ll take more than a dozen villanelle’s to get better.

Posted in poem, poetry | Comments Off on Forms: villanelle

Improv and Interviews

This is an easy one: “How does improv help you in job interviews?”


We live in a culture that values authenticity and self-actualization, but expects people to also serve as disposable parts of faceless corporate machines. And that’s OK. All the adolescent angst in the world won’t actually feed the hungry. Corporate machines, despite their manifold faults, do that particular job better than any Central Committee ever did.

As a poet and writer and all-round human being, I get the authenticity thing. But authenticity is hard to do well and not always necessary, at least not beyond a certain level. Improv makes it easier to hit that level.

I’ve had the kind of experiences required to find out what I’m really made out of–mostly bloody-mindedness, doggedness, and obstinance, if you’re wondering–and I wouldn’t wish those experiences on my worst enemy. Not because I’m not proud of who I am, but because you only get to find out those things when you’re at the point where you “face a life-or-death decision/and make it in the certainty of doubt”, and that is a horrible situation to be in. It really is. Anything you believe about yourself up to that point is at least somewhat speculative, but honestly, if I had the choice… well, I’d probably not change anything, but that’s because I’m an ironclad idiot. And bloodyminded. And obstinant. But I still wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Improv enables us to navigate the world between the authentic and the artificial without going through the delightful process of encountering our true selves, raw and helpless blasted heath. Besides, “between the authentic and the artificial” is where all of us live most of the time. Even me. Improv teaches us to bring out the things we have inside us while making them useful to the scene, the situation, the world. This is powerful stuff, because this is what the world asks of us.

It’s also what Jesus asks of us, if you’re that-way minded (I’m not, but I’m willing to pull support from pretty much anywhere): in the Gospel of Thomas, (which is non-canonical, but still my favourite, and not just because he’s may namesake) Jesus says something along the lines of, “If you bring out that which is inside you, that which is inside you will save you. If you do not bring out that which is inside you, that which is inside you will destroy you.” How can you argue with Jesus? I mean, Jesus!

There’s a delightful essay on Cracked.com that points out the only thing that matters in the world is what you can do for other people. Full stop. It doesn’t matter how nice you are (exhibit a: me, a not-particularly-nice person who nevertheless manages to do nice things for other people now and then) or how evil you aren’t (a list of faults you don’t have is not of any value to others, but, uh… go you?) What matters is what you can do for others. Sometimes those things will make money, maybe lots of money. Other times they will mostly make happiness, or at least alleviate suffering. Sometimes they’ll do both. But regardless, the value is in what you can do for others.

Improv is something you can do. And it does lots of things for others. In particular, it convinces them to hire you. This is good for you (obviously) and it’s also good for them (maybe less obviously) because you’re an awesome employee. You show up on time, you’re dedicated, you listen, you make offers, and you ask yourself how you can contribute to the scene company… but those are things for later posts.

I’ve done a lot of interviews over the past 20 years–particularly during my time as a consultant–and most of them have been successful, primarily thanks to early improv experience. The most recent round has been even better than most, thanks to the upgrading I’ve had from taking courses at the Improv Comedy Instutite.

Interviews are scenes, and your job in an interview is to construct a character that will result in the scene ending with an offer, or an invitation from the company to move on to the next stage of the interview process, or a decision on your part to let this one pass. All of which are wins for you.

We all have diverse skill sets, and how to present the bundle of skills that are most interesting to a given employer is basically a problem in character construction. Since an interview is a scene, we can ask the usual questions. “What is this scene about?” is simple: “Finding out about this company and making them impressed with me.” But “Who am I in this scene?” is a more complex question. There are certain aspects of the character you’re presenting–which should always be drawn from your best guess of your authentic self–that may make you more or less valuable to the company.

If you’re going for a management job, amping up your extroversion can be useful. If you’re going for a technical position, letting your inner geek out can’t hurt. If there is a lot of interpersonal stuff, find those soft-spots in your soul and build around them, and so on.

Doing this well requires listening intensely and carefully to what the people on the other side of the table or the other end of the phone are saying. What do they really want? I had a series of interviews with a company a while back and we both spent part of the time trying to put the other off: “You do realize this job is mostly XYZ and not ABC, which you said you’re really interested in?” they asked. And I told them, “You should hire the best person for the job. If it’s me, great. If not, no big deal.”

What we were both doing was working to figure out if the job and me were really a good fit. I listened carefully to what they were saying and responded in kind over the course of several weeks of interaction, and by the end of it we were in agreement on how well the job suited me. That’s a good outcome, regardless of whether the answer is “Really well” or “Not at all”.

Scenes are about building agreement, just like interviews. If at the end of the process you’ve decided you don’t want to work somewhere and they’ve decided they don’t want you, that’s a good scene. Problem solved.

It’s nicer if they decide they want you and you decide you want them, but regardless, the way to get to agreement is to build a character around those aspects of yourself you want to emphasize. If you’re interviewing for company X, think of it as a character named “X-me”. A friend who interviewed at GM for a summer position described his preparation in terms of his “GM haircut” and his “GM suit” and so on. He got the job, because he created a GM-person who simply had to be hired if the company was at all true to its own character.

The modern era of disposable employees makes this process easier: we all know the company will toss us overboard the moment we become inconvenient, and playing a character for them is good way to ensure that loyalty–or the lack thereof–is precisely reciprocal in the employer/employee relationship. The moment we step off stage we are done.

But while on stage, a character is more than a loose bundle of unrelated traits: canonically, a character has something they love, something they are passionate about, and something they hate. We all love, are passionate about, and hate many different things. For a given job, think about what things amongst your loves, passions and hates are the most useful to the company you are interviewing with.

In in one recent interview I emphasized my love of managing a team, my passion for products that enable creative individuals, and my hate of a particular IDE (which is quite appropriately named after an astronomical event associated with unexpected darkness and bad omens.) In another I emphasized my love of managing a team, my passion for embedded intelligence, and my hate of technological conservatism. Hate should not loom large, because it’s an unsavoury characteristic at the best of times, but it should be there. If you want to change the world, you want to eliminate something, hopefully by creating something new and better rather than doing something stupid and reactionary.

My new employer is paying me for a character I’ve built. They aren’t interested in me as a poet or firmware engineer or playwright or algorithm designer or novelist or software developer or screenwriter or physicist. They want a particular set of things I can do, and by creating a character–who is still drawn from my authentic self–I could present to them those skills, that love, that passion, across multiple interviews without muddying the waters with any of the other, irrelevant (to them) things I can do.

Character is one of the most fundamental ways of navigating an improv scene, and it’s just as useful in those real-life scenes we call interviews.

Posted in improv, life | Comments Off on Improv and Interviews

Opinions, Judgements and the Bayesian Revolution

This article on what it means to “have an opinion” is not bad, but it muddles two fundamentally different types of “opinion” and as such fails to get at the root of the problem, and misses important ideas about diversity and knowledge.

People use words in messy and problematic ways and always will. As linguistic purists and logicians we may grind our teeth when we see ambiguity (single terms that are used to mean multiple things in the same argument) and amphiboly (whole sentences or clauses that can be interpreted in more than one way, and are, in a single argument) used to justify all manner of nonsense, even while as poets we can revel in those same phenomena.

As such, a great deal of philosophy has always started with getting our terms clear. Aristotle frequently introduced discussions of some idea or other with some variant of the statement “X is said in many ways…” and then went on to discuss them, teasing out the nuances and differences as well as the similarities.

The difference between “opinions” and “being wrong” is not that some opinions are wrong, but that opinions, properly understood, are statements of fact about the person giving them but stated as if they were a fact about some part of the world that is not the person giving them. Judgements, which the author conflates with opinions, are different animals.

To repeat myself, opinions are facts about ourselves stated as if they were facts about the world: “Penguins are the best!” is identical in meaning to “I like penguins” or “I think penguins are the best”, both of which are clearly and purely facts about me: what I like, what I think. In the first form, “Penguins are the best!”, I appear to be making a claim about the world when I’m actually making a claim about me.

Distinguishing between ourselves and the rest of the world is one of the greatest challenges any human being faces. It’s a process that starts in infancy and frequently also seems to stop there, which leads to us having all kinds of muddled opinions and ideas. Our internal state–our emotions, our ideas, our attitudes–are all real, but they are all facts about us, not facts about any other part of the world.

Confusion on this issue is commonplace. People say things like “We need to look at facts, not emotions!” or “We need to follow our hearts, not the facts!” as if “fact” and “emotion” were different kinds of thing.

They aren’t: emotions are facts… about us.

Facts about us may or may not be as relevant as facts about things that are not us when we’re making a decision, but treating emotions and the rest of our internal state as if it wasn’t factual is as big an error as ignoring facts about other things in favour of facts about us. All facts matter. Which facts matter most depends on the circumstances.

And when we get confused on this score, we get into trouble.

To take a personal example, “You don’t love me” has been known to come out of my mouth when an accurate statement of knowable fact has been, “I don’t feel loved.” This is the same phenomena that drives so many wacky claims in the public sphere.

One very common fact about themselves that people bring up when arguing for wacky ideas is what they personally can or cannot imagine. I harp on this a lot, but it bears repeating in this context, because what someone does or does not, or can or cannot, imagine is in most cases almost entirely due to facts about them, not facts about the rest of the world. We know the world is full of stuff–from quantum mechanics to Darwinian evolution–that no one could imagine, until it turned out to be true.

Its important to keep this view of opinions in mind because it makes clear that justifying a claim about something that is not us by pointing to a fact about ourselves makes no sense. It’s as if we said, “I have upward-sloping ear canals [+], therefore evolution is false.” Yet this is what a great many “it’s my opinion” claims amount to, and the facts being pointed to are generally the person’s feelings or emotional response to some part of the world.

Many people are unhappy with the idea of anthropogenic climate change, but “I am upset that my lifestyle might be contributing to a major economic and ecological disaster” is not a fact that should change the plausibility anyone gives to “The success of the anti-nuclear movement in the ’70’s and ’80’s means we are now facing a major crisis due to our vast CO2 emissions, 80% of which come from the coal and oil power plants that nuclear would have replaced.”

The other kind of “opinion”, which in contrast to the author of the article I’ve linked above is what I want to call “judgement”, is quite different. It’s just the legitimate effect of our prior beliefs and biases in an inherently uncertain world, which we know must influence our beliefs if they are to remain consistent.

This is a necessary consequence of the Great Bayesian Revolution that is slowly sweeping the world: the realization that for our beliefs to be consistent, they must reflect something about the subject who holds them. There is no view from nowhere–any more than there is a view of nowhere–and it turns out there is just one way of correctly accounting for where we stand when evaluating the evidence for or against some idea. [*]

In Bayesian language, our biases are called “priors”, as in “prior beliefs”, which are the things we bring to any idea when we are faced with new evidence. Bayes’ Rule, which I’ll describe below, is the only provably correct way of updating our prior beliefs in the face of new evidence, and that updated belief will be our prior the next time new evidence comes along.

Two people starting with different priors will always reach slightly different conclusions from the same evidence, and anything else would be a violation of Bayes’ Rule, which says the strength of our belief in an idea after we see some new evidence should be proportional to the strength of our prior belief, multiplied by a factor that depends on the strength of the evidence.

Strong evidence will make everyone’s beliefs stronger, but if I start out thinking something is pretty unlikely and you start out thinking “hey, it could happen”, then after we’ve seen the same strong evidence for it you’re still going to have a stronger belief than me, although my belief will be much stronger than before. “Differences of opinion” of this kind aren’t just natural, they are necessary if we are all to keep a reasonably consistent set of beliefs in our heads.

The Bayesian idea of “strength” of evidence for an idea is also pretty simple: if the evidence–the facts, the data–would be pretty likely if the idea was true and pretty unlikely regardless of whether it’s true or not, then the evidence is strong. When Galileo saw moving lights around Jupiter and only Jupiter using his telescope, he realized that if there were objects like the Earth’s moon orbiting Jupiter such an observation would be really likely. Someone objected that the objects could just be some kind of optical effect in his telescope, and he replied that if that was the case, why didn’t he see moving lights around any other celestial body? It’s that combination–the observed effect is likely if the idea is true, unlikely otherwise–that makes something good evidence for an idea.

If the evidence would be pretty likely to happen regardless, it’s not so good. And if the evidence is unlikely to happen if the idea is true but pretty likely otherwise, it’s actually a counter-argument.

As an example of evidence that shouldn’t change anyone’s beliefs very much, an acquaintance once argued that a psychic she’d been to was uncannily accurate because they had predicted “you will take a trip to the East, over water” and she was indeed travelling from Nanaimo to Vancouver in the next month, an occurrence that happens so frequently its prediction really doesn’t count for much.

Finally, the question of “how much evidence is enough” is a tricky one, because we don’t know what we don’t know in many cases, and nothing is certain… not even Bayes’ Rule itself: if you give me evidence against it, I’ll take it seriously, although I’m not holding my breath. But “maximally plausible” and “maximally implausible” are not “certainty” (which is also called “faith”: an idea held in such a way that no amount of evidence will change someone’s mind about it.)

So when we argue, we shouldn’t as good Bayesians be trying to prove anyone wrong in the sense of demonstrating that their belief is impossible. There could be unicorns. We should instead focus on demonstrating on the basis of the evidence that one particular proposition is way more (or less) plausible than the others. “The nineteen nitwits acted with a relatively small number of other faith-addled idiots of the same ilk to commit 9/11” is way more plausible than “Zionists faked it all”, and we don’t need to demonstrate anything more than that. Favouring a less plausible belief over a more plausible one is the root of a great deal of evil, and once it is clear someone is committing that error, we can consider the argument over.

Beyond that, however, we all don’t know much more than we do know.

There is a vast literature in economics, politics, sociology and history that I’m not conversant with, for example, although I’ve done a lot of reading on those subjects. And my experiences as a straight, white, Anglo, educated, middle-class, professional male might not cover the entire ground of human experience. Just guessing about that, mind.

Policy questions are hard, and our disagreements about them often stem from judgements that arise in a reasonably Bayesian way from our prior beliefs and the diversity of evidence–including personal experiences–we’ve encountered. Some ideas–vaccines cause autism, for example, or homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebos–are contradicted by so much data that no one can credibly claim to honestly believe them without admitting to priors that are conspiracy-theory-crazy. But many differences aren’t like that, even though they are nearly as radical on the face of it as those between the pro-vax and anti-vax sides. In those cases, digging in to “WyTF do you believe that?” is often surprisingly fruitful, if you can get past the “This person is nuts” reflex on both sides.

Bayes’ Rule tells us that priors matter, and a diversity of priors in any group is likely to bring us closer to convergence on the most reasonable set of beliefs faster and more effectively than a prior monoculture would. The body of evidence worth considering, especially for complex social issues, is large and diverse and not uniformly available to everyone.

As such, Bayesiaism favours diversity even as it encourages and enables convergence on a common set of well-supported beliefs. And it helps us understand why and how people with different backgrounds can have legitimate differences in judgement–not opinion–about all kinds of things that seem pretty obvious to us, while at the same time making clear that anyone who persists in favouring the overwhelmingly implausible over the extremely plausible is probably just nuts.

[+] Which is true, by the way: every time a physician or audiologist sticks that thing in my ear and looks inside my head they say, “That’s odd…”, which I’ve learned not to take personally, as there really is a great deal that’s odd inside my head.

[*] In Bayesian terms, I am neither a subjectivist nor an objectivist. I distinguish between the subjective “plausibilities” that we assign to our ideas and the objective “probabilities” that we use as evidence. Since Bayes’ Rule is written as a ratio of probabilities that is used to update a prior plausibility to a posterior one, the difference in kind is not obvious, but understanding it is crucial to accounting for both the significance and limitations of subjectivity and objectivity in the Bayesian picture.

Posted in bayes, epistemology, language, politics, probability, psychology, religion, science | Comments Off on Opinions, Judgements and the Bayesian Revolution

The Mutant Flowers of Fukushima

This picture of deformed flowers near Fukushima is making the rounds today, and I figured it was worth commenting on it. I am physicist who has worked fairly heavily in radiation transport and health physics, as well as genomics.

It’s a compelling image, and it tells a story: “Radioactive mutant flowers growing in Japan.”

I’ve seen people say some very strange things in response to it, like “If it does this to flowers can you imagine what it will do to animals and marine life?”

For the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone would consult their imagination to figure out the likely consequences of low levels of radiation, given the spectacular failure of the human imagination as a way of knowing over the past many thousands of years. We imagined that bloodletting would cure disease. We imagined that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men. We imagined that people of a particular race or religion were more give to criminal (or to virtuous) behaviour… And so on. There’s hardly anything we didn’t imagine, except things like “most disease is caused by tiny organisms, too small for the eye to see, that grow in dead matter and foul water.” Missed that one, which is too bad, as it happens to be true. Our imaginations missed a whole lot of other truths as well. Ergo: imagination is not a good guide to truth or falsity. Don’t trust it.

What I do trust is science: the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference.

The accompanying story says that this kind of odd flower can be triggered by various factors that upset the biochemical regulators of growth, including fungal infection and genetic defects.

The question is: what are the odds this is due to radiation from the reactor accident that killed two people and contaminated a significant swath of the surrounding area, as opposed to being caused by something else?

I first figured the way to approach this would be to look at how common this kind of growth is elsewhere, but it turns out there is another way to do the analysis: we are told that the radiation level in the vicinity is 0.5 μSv/hr, which lets us say some pretty definite things about the odds of this being a radioactive mutant flower that’ll end up becoming ambulatory and crushing Tokyo (spoiler: not high).

A sievert is a unit of equivalent dose. “Radiation” is a catch-all term for different classes of particles that are energetic enough to break chemical bonds between atoms in molecules, or to knock electrons out of atomic shells. In both cases what we get are atoms that have imbalanced electrical charge, so this is sometimes called “ionizing radiation”. Ions or charged molecular fragments called radicals tend to be highly reactive, so ionizing radiation results in a lot of damage to the cells it hits, including genetic damage.

Some kinds of particle deposit energy more efficiently, which means that some kinds of radiation can do a lot more damage than others, even though they have the same energy. Electrons or gamma-rays spread their energy over a considerable range, whereas alpha particles and fission fragments stop really quickly, doing a lot more damage in the process. All of this is summed up by a “quality factor”, which is about 10 for alpha particles and is 1 for electrons and gamma rays. The sievert is a unit that contains all that information, so it’s what we use when assessing health effects.

It’s useful to remember that the reason why alpha particles are more dangerous than electrons or gammas is that when there are multiple chemical bonds broken in a single cell, its a lot harder for the cell to repair itself. The quality factor is a necessary consequence of this non-linear effect.

0.5 μSv/hour turns out to be about 4 mSv/year (for historical reasons we use mSv for most radiation effects stuff, because it is just a factor of ten off the old pre-SI unit of REM).

Natural background radiation in most places is 1 – 2 mSv/year, and total radiation exposure for most people is around 3 mSv/year (the difference is made up of various other sources, like dental x-rays and so on).

But there are plenty of places where the background radiation levels are much higher, including one Ramsar in Iran where some residents are exposed to over 100 mSv/year, year in and year out. The first link is to an abstract that says the followup to the preliminary work on total mortality and cancer rates reported in the (more detailed but earlier) second link in fact bears out: there are no measureable health effects, and there do seem to be some adaptive changes to cell repair mechanisms amongst people living in the high-background areas. Their cells are more active in fixing radiation damage.

There are no reports of mutant flowers in Ramsar, with 25 times the radiation levels observed in the region around Fukushima where they are growing. Nor have any of the other high-radiation areas of the world been over-run by mutants. We’d have surely noticed by now. These are areas of high natural background, so things have been living there for millions of years.

Ergo: the mutant flowers of Fukushima likely aren’t due to radiation.

Sorry, Godzilla lovers. Radiation, like terrorism, is less scary than people with political agendas would have you believe.

One of the great ongoing debates in the health physics community is the so-called “linear no-threshold” model of radiation effects, which is contradicted by everything we know about observed epidemiological data, about the effects of different kinds of particle, and about the repair mechanisms of DNA.

Radiation hormesis is the hypothesis that there is a region of low radiation dose that is actually beneficial, possibly because it stimulates more activity on the part of other-wise little-used cellular repair mechanisms. It’s not a slam-dunk–because the data are noisy–but we simply don’t see the expected increases in cancer rates that the linear no-threshold model predicts. When a theory makes predictions that are not borne out, it becomes less plausible.

My own belief is that the linear no-threshold model is far too conservative for low doses, and it is becoming more difficult to argue otherwise as epidemological data in high-dose areas get better and longer-term. The French Academy of Sciences came out against the linear no-threshold model in 2005, and I expect that other national scientific bodies will follow suit.

Nuclear disasters are bad things. Radiation released into the environment–as happens all the time from coal plants that are still operating because of the vigorous political opposition to nuclear in the ’70’s and ’80s’–is bad. Nuclear power can be made safer and less proliferating. There is a serious debate to be had about the place for nuclear in the carbon-free world of the hopefully relatively near) future, because it is our only drop-in replacement for base-load coal.

But pictures of mutant flowers don’t have a lot of place in that debate.

They are kind of pretty in a slightly creepy way, though.

Posted in epistemology, physics, politics, psychology, science, technology | Comments Off on The Mutant Flowers of Fukushima

Narrative Predictions

The human brain is a machine for leaping to conclusions in a single bound. Activists and political agitators of every stripe use this to promote their nonsense by putting together narratives that appeal to our conclusion-jumping reflex. “Chemicals” are frequently the villains in these narratives, as are “corporations”, “liberals” and “The Government”.

It starts with facts and ends with predictions, both about the future and the hidden features of the past and present. Take any pair of otherwise-random observations of things that happen around the same time–the milk soured this morning and not two days ago I saw that old lady next door give me a funny look–and allow them to be metabolized by one of the stories that live in the air around us.

Stories like: “There are Satanic forces abroad in the world”, “Corporations control everything”, “Liberal do-gooders are coming for your free-dumb”. The random facts get consumed by the free-floating narratives and become the seeds of new stories, local stories, predictive stories. Stories grounded in but not justified by the observed facts: “That old woman is a witch”, “Big Agriculture is suppressing all the studies that show GMOs are deadly”, “Obama is going to issue an executive order to seize guns”.

Or in one recent case, “Chemicals will wipe out all the bees.”

The thing about these predictions is, they’re false. Predictions that bee populations are going to fall to unsustainable levels in the next few years have been out there for over a decade now. Beemaggeddon is the catastrophe of the future, and always will be.

Falsity never affects the living stories that encyst a few otherwise-unrelated facts and then thrive on organizing people into collectives whose purpose, like that of any living thing, is self-perpetuation.

One frequent move amongst fabulists who want to save the narrative that is guiding them is to deny that any predictions were actually made. This is remarkably successful, as we frequently let people get away with making things that sound like predictions, and that they and everyone else treats like predictions, but which when looked at carefully turn out to be nothing of the kind.

The financial press is full of this kind of thing: hedged statements full of weasel-words about what “might” or “could” happen. The thing to remember when reading such conditional statements is that their negation has exactly the same meaning. “The market might go up!” means exactly the same thing as “The market might go down!”

A headline that screams out “Something COULD Happen!” sounds impressive. But “Something MIGHT NOT Happen”, which means exactly the same thing? Not so much.

Quantitative reasoning can help with these things, but the simplest trick is to just swap all the “mights” and “coulds” with “might nots” in your mind as you read any news story that looks like it is predicting something. It takes a surprising amount of time for this habit to become really ingrained and for it to have a lasting affect on how you react to the news, because even simple–especially simple–narratives have enormous power.

In comparison, science–the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment, and Bayesian inference–has very little narrative power, so it splashes awkwardly amidst the sea of living stories that consume so many human lives.

Nevertheless: it still moves. And unlike our misbegotten narrative predictions, science doesn’t simply wander directionlessly across the plane of possibility, never getting anywhere after thousands of years of vigorous debate and Inquisition, but staggers unsteadily in a drunkard’s walk generally toward ideas that are more plausible than the ones it leaves behind. It’s not a particularly graceful or majestic process. It’s just the one that actually produces knowledge, and predictions more likely to be correct than not.

Posted in epistemology, politics, prediction, probability, psychology, science | Comments Off on Narrative Predictions

Fear and Vulnerability in Improv

The title is a half-nod to Hunter S. Thompson, I guess, because there was no loathing involved.

I’ve just completed a two day gym at the Improv Comedy Institute on Granville Island with Janet Davidson of the Second City Training Centre, which focused on “Turning Stage Fright Into Stage Fun”, and it was probably the best improv course I’ve done, which given the standards at ICI is saying something.

The course was taught in two sessions of four hours, one on each day, which was great because it gave some time for the first day’s material to settle.

There was a lot of object work and a lot of emotion work on the first day, particularly bringing the two together. I found this probably the most interesting purely technical thing in the course: the use of object work and mime as ways to express emotion and reinforce the onstage communication.

We talk a lot about communication in improv, and as I used to tell students on the robotics team back in the day, “There are two things human beings are really bad at: thinking, and communicating.” What we mean by “communication” varies by field. In the sciences and engineering it’s all about representing the abstractions unambiguously. In improv it’s much more about getting across concrete emotions and things.

There was a delightful, terrifying, game we played on the first day where we stood around in a circle and passed various objects: a red ball, a bread bowl, a Red Bull, a bed pole and a guy named Ken Hall. For a hearing impaired improvisor this is pretty much as scary as it gets, but between everyone’s clear enunciation and strong object work I actually had no problem determining what I was being handed. It is the most supported I’ve ever felt.

Trust, as I’ve said previously, doesn’t come easily to me. This group was about half people I’ve worked with before, but as a whole they were the most supportive and generous group I’ve worked with.

The importance of using multiple channels of communication, so emotions are not conveyed only by words but also by object work, action, expression and body language, is one of my big take-aways. Also: I never really appreciated just how loudly Margret Nyfors can scream.

One thing that I think helped bond the group was the interstitial games, like penguin tag and zombie tag, that were just energetic and fun as well as super-ridiculous.

There were other more static games that encouraged silliness and playfulness, which helped show everyone that we could do ridiculous things and it would be appreciated, not denigrated.

The creation of a shared environment in a game in which people hid a microfilm in different places was really cool, and encouraged close attention to what others were doing, how they created or embellished details of the space.

There were emotional orchestration exercises that showed me I’m better at turning emotion on and up than turning it off or down. This gives me a nice concrete thing to work on next.

The second day added character into the mix, with exploration of characters based on real people and ones that were completely synthetic, as well as a fascinating exercise of putting five people on stage in an environment, interviewing them about themselves and each other, and then setting the scene in motion. This breaking out of the process by which relationships and situations are created on stage was really interesting and demonstrated the kind of intense listening required to process a scene in realtime. I can see a little more clearly just how intensely really good improvisors must be listening to create the kind of apparently magical synchronization they exhibit.

The class ended with different exercises for each of us selected to put us somewhat outside of our comfort zone. I did a scene where my partner and I swapped characters when told to do so, which I found enormously challenging. What I could see going on in my head was that I was comfortable with the character I had chosen but much less so with the one my partner had chosen. This is a matter of trust: I knew why I’d chosen as I did and the character was inside my comfort zone. The other character–which was also objectively inside my comfort zone–wasn’t one I had chosen so I had to worry about it, for a certain value of “had to”.

Trust is a gift to yourself. If you trust your fellow players they do work for you, in this case, creating a character. I didn’t have to think of it, I just had to step into it. How cool is that? But I could only do that if I trusted my scene partner. There have been scenes where I’ve really felt that trust, and it’s literally like I’m doing just a fraction of the work, not because my partner’s aren’t doing their bit at other times, but because I don’t trust them enough to take their work at face value and simply accept it.

There was a lot more to the class than a thousand words knocked out in the immediate aftermath can capture. But there is one more thing.

I rarely know why I’m doing anything until after I’ve done it, which makes how I’ve managed to get where I am on that basis is one of life’s great mysteries. Either my subconscious is a super-genius, or there it a god. I’m about equally skeptical of both alternatives.

In the case of this course, I wasn’t sure why I was taking it. I don’t experience stage fright and never have: I like being in front of an audience. But in improv, I know I’ve been limited in some important ways. I got to work on a couple of those during this class, but the most important thing I realized was that I was letting anxiety due to lack of trust get to me at times. When I’m anxious I over-think, and I’ve felt myself doing that on stage at times in recent months, particularly when thinking about entering a scene. I hesitate, and I hesitate because I’m anxious. I’m pretty sure now I’ll be more able to simply plunge in, trusting in my (possibly super-genius) subconscious to have chosen the right moment, and in my fellow-players to support me on those inevitable occasions when my subconscious turns out to have been not so bright after all.

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