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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Another Hymn Before Action

We’re fed up with your scripture
Quran and hadiths too
your Bibles and your Guru
Granth Sahib… and you
who read the words of teachers
and refuse to move beyond
the rantings of your preachers
and all the lies they’ve spawned.

Uncertainty and doubting
are all we really know–
yet listening and caring,
our hearts have learned to grow.
The foolish and the racist
are not our friends nor yours
they cleave to ancient stasis
and fall for faith’s sweet lures.

We’ve less of that within us,
just humor and a kind
thought for all that’s in us:
poor struggling human minds!
We crave to understand you
sad Losers of the Book
who strive with every sinew
to cope with what Faith took:

Humility and kindness,
tolerance and love,
laughter that can blind us
to the death that lurks above
like the Sword of Damocles
suspended from a thread
while we drink life to the lees
before we march off dead

to the silence of the grave
where solace might await
or then again perhaps the wave
of mystery will abate
and we will see the Infinite
or something much akin
while you with faith so militant
have lost what we might win.

Our doubts have been rewarded
with knowledge growing fast
and our science has recorded
the failings of our past
while you who read your teachers
and refuse to move beyond
the rantings of your preachers
will soon enough be gone.

This doesn’t take much from Kipling’s original beyond the basic form. My purpose was to turn a basically religious poem on its head, and I’m not entirely displeased with the result. There’s an inevitable Tennyson reference, and a bit of quantum agnosticism that’s subtle enough to be satisfactory.

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Imaginary Friend

I’m sorry your imaginary friend
is whispering sweet hatred in your ears
motivating murderous revenge
upon the source of all your bygone fears:
perhaps it is a woman who today
is targeted by your inner voice…
one who has the guts to simply say
she deserves equality and choice,
or maybe it’s a man who speaks his mind
who mocks your deep beliefs as silly lies
told by children of a savage kind
to convince themselves they’re really wise.
You cannot kill us all and in the end
he’ll fail you, your imaginary friend.

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Billions in Weirdness

A friend​ asked me about the science behind this project backed by Indian American billionaire Manoj Bhargava and I thought it worth a little more public response.

There are four technologies discussed on this site:

  1. stationary bike for energy generation
  2. mysterious water purification tech
  3. blood-circulation enhancer
  4. geothermal power using graphene to conduct heat to the surface

The stationary bike thing says 1 hour of pedaling will produce electricity for 24 hours. A reasonably fit human can generate about 100 W of steady output for an hour by “vigorous exercise”.

That one hour’s output has to be stored in a battery and pulled out again, which will lose about 20% in the process, so that’s less than 4 W available over the full 24 hours. With LED lights that’s more than nothing, but solar cells or small windmills would both be better bets. Furthermore, that energy comes from the food the person ate, and humans are relatively lousy converters of food to exercise/energy, so the whole idea reeks of inefficiency.

Furthermore, these objections are stunningly obvious to anyone who has ever taken first year engineering, so I have a hard time believing no one on the advisory team noticed them. Which makes me wonder what is going on.

The water purification technology is not described, so who knows if it works. All I’ll say is I’ve worked in water tech and known some very smart people who have left academia to work in water purification, and while it’s a problem that seems to outsiders like it ought not to be that hard to solve, it really is that hard to solve. So I’m skeptical of claims for relatively small systems with no mention of energy inputs being used to generate a litre per second or so of potable water from the ocean.

The health claim reminds me of men’s hair loss ads. When I started losing my hair in my early 40’s I did some investigation on hair loss solutions. There were all kinds of snake oil remedies being sold, many of which claimed to “improve blood circulation in the scalp”.

There were also skeptics who pointed out that hair transplants worked just fine, which would not be the case if blood circulation were the issue.

Even the one nominally “successful” baldness treatment–Rogaine–only works in about 25% of men, and costs the Earth. Despite being slightly vain about my hair, which was one of my very few physically attractive features, I started cutting it super-short and decided to do my best to age gracefully. It hasn’t worked so far, but I figure there’s still time.

In any case, that’s a long-winded way of saying that while the days of bloodletting are more-or-less behind us, there is still clearly a certain “just makes sense” appeal to blaming all our health problems on issues with blood circulation, despite there being very little evidence that any of them, at least other than arteriosclerosis, which is not treatable by mechanical means. Arteriosclerosis is an inflamatory disease of the arterial wall, and even things like angioplasty, which mechanically clear the plaques that block blood flow, don’t work very well because it’s not a mechanical issue at root, it is a physiological issue.

Finally, the use of exotic high-conductivity carbon allotropes to bring geothermal power to the surface is not completely insane, but it is needlessly speculative. It is true that carbon in the form of diamonds, graphene and carbon nanotubes has a thermal conductivity at temperatures around 100-200 C that is over five times that of copper (2000-3000 W/m.K versus 400 W/m.K).

It is also true that this value only holds for large unbroken sheets of graphene or continuous carbon nanotubes or diamonds that are unbroken and uncut. A single diamond has a stupidly high thermal conductivity. A bunch of diamonds in a bucket are a pretty good thermal insulator, because there is poor diamond-to-diamond heat conduction where they touch (although I don’t recommend insulating your home with bags of diamonds… there are better insulators that are much cheaper.)

No one knows how to create large, continuous sheets of graphene, although there is a lot of work being done and progress being made on the problem. When it happens it may make some kinds of geothermal power more practical, but the rate-limiting step in extracting energy from the deep underground is not our ability to bring heat to the surface, but rather the ability of the rock itself to conduct heat to whatever we put down there.

A typical geothermal system involves fracturing the rock in a zone between two sets of boreholes and sending water down one and up the other, so it traverses a large volume of rock with a large surface area so as to pick up lots of heat without cooling the rock down at a rate that is faster than can be replenished by new heat rising from the Earth’s core.

Obviously this can’t be done with graphene, which is a solid. There may be some way of growing a graphene “root system” deep underground that would be in contact with enough rock surface that local cooling wouldn’t be a problem, but graphene is a tricky material to work with. It reacts badly with water, for one thing, and water has a way of getting down to the lowest point available. It’s a rare thing to find a borehole that stays dry.

So at the very least it isn’t obvious what the advantage of graphene-based geothermal is supposed to be over the regular water-based kind, which is a mature technology that really should be more widely deployed, and probably could be with a little bit of focused investment and some care and attention from a well-led engineering team.

So of the four “solutions” one is enormously impractical compared to perfectly viable alternatives, one isn’t described in any detail but claims to have a simple solution to a hard problem that very smart people have spent hundreds of millions on and have researched over decades, one is founded on a very strange claim about blood circulation that sounds a lot like an advertisement for a sham men’s hair loss treatment, and one is based on applying technology that doesn’t quite exist to a problem that already has a pretty good solution.

I’m a very naive person, so I’m not really qualified to speculate as to what is actually going on here. It’s not even like they are trying to come up with plausible solutions to the problems they are talking about. For a million dollars I’d happily give them far more plausible stories to tell, ones that would not only sound good to laypeople but stand up to considerably more than the kind of casual expert scrutiny I’ve applied here.

But regardless of what is going on, I’m confident in saying that whatever the outcome of this project, the odds of it solving any of the problems it claims to be focused on are quite a bit lower than the odds of it involving the transfer of money from honest but technologically innocent individuals to individuals who are neither technologically nor morally innocent.

Posted in ethics, marketing, mechanics, physics, politics, technology, thermodynamics | Comments Off on Billions in Weirdness

SIWC2015 Brain Dump

The Surrey International Writer’s Conference is a meeting for working writers and people who want to be working writers. This was my first year attending, although I had heard good things about it from friends who had been in the past.

There were four sessions per day on Friday and Saturday and two on Sunday morning which I’m not likely to make it to because two hours travel for two hours of talks on topics I happen to be less interested in is not a great trade-off when my brain is already full and I could use an extra hour or two of sleep.

The conference is not cheap. I got the “basic” package which included all three days, no meals, and no evening keynotes and it ran over $400. It did include morning keynotes which with one notable exception were mostly administriva-related, as near as I could tell.

The notable exception was a short talk by a successful romance novelist who shared her struggles, her periodic conviction she was a failure, and her persistence in “writing around, writing through” the other stuff going on in her life (including having a couple of kids and minor things like that.)

I didn’t write much for fifteen years when my kids were young. I had doubts about my ability as a parent and deliberately walked away from anything that I thought would distract me from that. It was hard, but the results were worth it.

Others who are more confident in their parenting abilities are right to make different choices, but we all end up having to “write around, and write through” other things in our lives. Day jobs, most often, other hobbies, friends, spouses, partners, cats, dogs, and other beings that quite reasonably ask for some part of our time.

The workshops and sessions I attended covered a range of topics from the practicalities of freelancing to the mystery of inspiration. Beyond that, one of the unique features of SIWC is there are opportunities to pitch to agents and to have your work reviewed by an experienced writer. I took advantage of both, making two pitches and having one “blue pencil” session with a local writer who gave me some excellent feedback on a difficult scene. You can only for sign up for one of each kind of session when you register, but there is a rush line to get more on the day. One person I know got a literal handful.

From my notes, the sessions I attended were:

1) Freelancing: this was full of good advice from David Paul Williams, who is a freelancer and lawyer. It basically confirmed for me that freelancing is not materially different from the kind of business I’ve done as a consultant, which was a useful context-setting for me. Freelancing has the same mix of work and marketing I’m used to, the same concerns about contracts, commitment, payment, taxes, and so on. Be easy to work with, communicate clearly and often–especially when you think you’re going to miss a deadline–and build solid relationships. Business 101, but good to be reminded of.

2) Action Scenes with Sam Sykes, who seemed under-prepared. There were a couple of useful take-aways (action is a conversation, and action should have consequences for the characters, not just be an interlude while the story takes a break) but otherwise was a bit thin.

3) This is Not Your Country–about writing the Other–with Q Lindsey Barrett was excellent. She was clear on the difficulties anyone who dares step out of the box of class, gender and ethnicity faces, and up-front that anyone who does so will face automatic and vitriolic criticism. Her attitude is, quite reasonably, that these attitudes border on censorship, and they are simply something artists have to face head-on. I’m OK with that. I have an interest in the history of British Columbia, which means I have to write about native peoples. There only alternatives are to not write about my own people’s history, or to pretend natives don’t exist. Neither alternative is palatable.

So I’ll go ahead and write what I write, and face the automatic criticism by reflexive haters head on. It was a very positive and validating experience, knowing that others have faced the same issues. People like me–who sit at the very pinnacle of the pillar of privilege–arguably have a responsibility to be respectful of the cultures our ancestors wiped out, but that doesn’t mean they are off limits to us. What unites us, our common humanity, is greater than what divides us.

4) Holly Löricz’s talk on editors was excellent. I’ve resisted paying the high price of professional editing, leaning instead on a suite of fairly experimental tools to handle copy-editing tasks, and intelligent first readers to give me the feedback a developmental editor might give, but I do see the logic of it, and maybe I’ll eventually go that way.

That was Friday’s sessions, interspersed with pitches and blue pencil, which resulted in a couple of expressions of interest to see proposals. I’m going to cut 50,000 words from Darwin’s Theorem before submitting the proposal, though. It needs it, sad though it makes me. The advice to “kill your darlings” is the most difficult for any writer to take.

5) Saturday was even better. It kicked off with a good session with Hallie Ephron on secrets and lies, and how to use them while being fair to the reader. Darwin’s Theorem has plenty of secrets, and I struggled with them a lot. I think this session gave me some tools to understand how to do better in future.

6) Next was another Holly Löricz session on proposals and pitches. I had already bought her book (co-written with Chip MacGreggor) on proposals, and found the talk useful and practical. I have a hard time summarizing my work, and the practical, actionable advice she gave looks very useful. I’m vaguely excited about writing my next proposal, which is not the way I’ve ever felt before.

7) After that came Chip MacGreggor on branding, which was interesting. It’s always nice to see someone with a PhD who has wandered far afield and done well with it. My “brand”, insofar as it exists, is “cerebral, visceral, and poetic”. That’s the promise I can keep to my readers. Dunno what the value of it is, but that’s who I am.

8) I saved the best for last: Jasper Fforde on “The Last 5%”. It was amazing. I’ve enjoyed Fforde’s writing, and it was fun to see him in person. It was more fun to see him break into a long discourse on poetry immediately after I had written “He’s looking for the poetry” in my notebook. It was even more fun to figure out what’s wrong with my prose.

He was talking about the levels of quality in writing from amateur to adequate to professional, where most of us can reasonably expect to end up. But beyond professional is inspired, and he was concerned with how to bring about that “unteachable” transition.

One of the things he talked about in a diverse, fluid and intelligent talk was a model of human beings as “spikey balls”: he depicted someone he knows who is an academic who has a couple of very long spikes representing his expertise in his field, but not much else. Boring. He encouraged writers to cultivate an interest in “stuff”: all kinds of diverse topics.

“OK,” thinks I, “that’s pretty much me… so why is my prose so pedestrian?”

And the light dawned.

Severe arrogance alert.

I am a very good poet. I don’t know if my poetry will last–it barely has any following today–but I am completely comfortable in saying it’s really good.

And one of the things I’m aware of as a poet is how much of the weird knowledge I have gets into it. Because that’s the other really arrogant thing I’m going to say here: I know a lot about a lot of things. I originally put a list of topic areas I’m reasonably expert in here, but that was too arrogant even for me. Suffice to say while listening to Fforde go on about the importance of knowing a little about a lot of things I found myself wondering if that was so important to writing inspired prose why was my prose so, well, prosaic?

The thing is, I don’t know a little about a lot. I know a lot about a lot, and I see connections between everything.

My poetry is constrained by the form and focus of the poem. It’s too short to fit everything in.

My prose, on the other hand, is over-connected. I have the same problem in improv, often missing offers because I see a dozen possibilities where there is in fact just one clear one to a normal person.

This is my fundamental insight: my prose is over-connected. That’s what’s wrong with it. That’s what is keeping it at the professional, pedestrian, level.

So I came away from Jasper Fforde’s talk with a much clearer idea of what I have to do to improve my prose: find ways to impose disciplines on myself that will constrain my writing to the same tight focus that my poetry gets from form. That will reign in my tendency toward over-connection and free my prose to be inspired.

This is something I can do.

Ergo: the Surrey International Writer’s Conference is the third in a series of conferences, workshops and festivals that have contributed enormously to my development as an artist in the last three months, starting with Joe Bill’s intensive in August, passing through Bill Binder’s workshop on the math of improv at VIIF (and also Brad McNeil’s action improv workshop and to some extent Adam’s game class) and ending here.

The person I did the blue pencil session with objected to a paraphrase of Elliot’s line from Little Gidding that she felt was too close to the original to pass muster. I’ve not made up my mind about that, but I’ll use it here in any case. I have come back to the place of my beginnings, to know it properly for the first time.

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Global Warming: so-so science, horrible politics

Rupert Darwall’s The Age of Global Warming is an interesting and important book for people who want to understand the political and diplomatic history of climate change.

Environmentalism comes in two kinds: pragmatists who want to formulate policy based on the best data and theory available, and romantics who believe that what they feel is somehow epistemically relevant to the question of how the rest of the world is.

Pragmatists have rarely had the upper hand in the climate change debate–if they did, we would have dealt with it by now via a combination of revenue-neutral carbon taxes and nuclear power. Instead, we are mired in an endless and fruitless debate between “changing everything” and paving the planet (which would admittedly also “change everything”, albeit not in the way utopian malthusians want.)

I believe that the past two-hundred fifty years of diminishing poverty, increasing wealth, decreasing inequality, increasing technological capability, and so on, is more plausibly sustainable than not, and more likely better for the environment than not.

Malthusians, on the other hand, believe it is not only plausible but certain that this situation is unsustainable, and despite repeated failed predictions going back two centuries, are as certain today as they were in 1800 that we are all doomed to famine, pestilence, war and death Real Soon Now.

Romantic environmentalism is firmly malthusian, which helps explain why is produces so many bad policy prescriptions. Like all romantic notions it eschews systematic, controlled, Bayesian investigation of the world for what “just makes sense”, because that particular way of knowing has never been known to fail, and gave us such awesome ideas as bloodletting and phrenology.

Darwall’s history starts more-or-less in 1972, with the first Earth Day (he does cover some of the antecedents that led up to it) and follows the two major waves of environmental policy making up to almost the present day. He does a good job of contrasting the successful, pragmatic Montreal Protocol on CFCs with the unsuccessful, romantic Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

He takes the plausible line that the fundamental problem of Kyoto was its inability to reconcile the economic needs of developing nations with the environmental wants of the developed world, which resulted in an agreement that was politically unpalatable in the developed world and practically meaningless to the major emitters of the developing world.

Annex I nations–which more-or-less correspond to the developed world–have emissions targets under Kyoto. Non-Annex I nations (everyone else, including China and South Korea) do not. Furthermore, there is no way in the Protocol for a non-Annex I nation to ever become an Annex I nation. Khazakhstan tried it for peculiar political reasons, and there was simply no process available.

Darwall makes the point repeatedly that romantic environmental policy is very often counter-productive. It not only doesn’t stop, it actually encourages, the behaviours it was intended to prevent. Thus the European Emissions Trading Scheme has resulted in relatively paltry reductions compared to what would be achievable if the same money was spent upgrading older power plants and has resulted in new categories of crime as fraudsters game the overly complex pseudo-market at taxpayer’s expense.

Canada, of course, is famous for pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol instead of simply ignoring it as many other Annex I nation have done. It may be the one honest thing Stephen Harper did while Prime Minister. Oil sands development is probably incompatible with the Protocol, and may be incompatible with stable climate, although the science is decidedly out on that.

Darwall’s coverage of the “Hockey Stick” debacle and the ClimateGate mess is reasonably thorough. It is my considered opinion as someone who encountered scientific fraud almost certainly once and quite probably twice in a relatively short career as a working scientist, that Michael Mann committed what I consider to be scientific fraud in his presentation of the “Hockey Stick” analysis.

This is independent of the correctness of the result: fraud in science is not about being right or wrong (the case of fraud I’m almost certain about resulted in fake data that were in fact reasonably consistent with my own results) but about how you do the work and how you present the results. When you know the results of your analysis are extremely sensitive to precisely what data you choose to use, and you suppress that fact, you are committing scientific fraud in my view, even if your result later on turns out to be correct.

This is because when you suppress data or doubts based on your gut feelings, you are putting the awesome epistemic power of your intestinal tract ahead of the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment, and Bayesian inference. That’s like following a discipline of diet or exercise except when you don’t feel like it.

Scientists make a bargain. We agree to give the highest plausibility to ideas that have passed the most stringent public tests of systematic observation, controlled experiment, and Bayesian inference. This gives us the power to understand the world as it is and not how we imagine it to be, which in turn allows us to feed the hungry, to cure the sick, to transport people safely around the world in a matter of hours, to let people communicate over long distances, to send human beings to the Moon… But like any bargain there is a price, and that price is: we have to give the highest plausibility to ideas that have passed the most stringent public tests of systematic observation, controlled experiment, and Bayesian inference. Which, as Sir Terry Pratchett might have said, has something to do with iron.

It is a measure of the profound politicization of climate science that Mann still has tenure anywhere.

And given some of his enemies, who couldn’t have some sympathy for him? Because the converse claim that “global warming is a hoax” is far more egregiously wrong than anything Michael Mann or Phil Jones might have done.

Darwall is considerably less competent in his handling of the science than in his handling of the politics. He is heavily influenced by mid-century positivists, most notably P. W. Bridgeman, who was an extreme operationalist even by the standards of the time. Add a dose of Popperian falsifiabilty–which Darwall does–and you wind up in a pretty anti-Bayesian place.

Despite being a skeptic with regard to the quality of prediction that we can reasonably expect from climate models–and I am, after all, a computational physicist and therefore professionally qualified to make this judgement, unlike the majority of climate scientists who appear to be practicing computational physics without a license–I believe anthropogenic climate change is plausible and plausibly poses a significant risk to the global capitalist economy upon which so much of our current wealth and peace depends.

It is clear that Darwall is far more skeptical than is warranted by the data.

I won’t argue that there isn’t a great deal of bad climate science and worse reporting of climate science and terrible policy that is justified by reference to bad climate science. Sturgeon’s Law–90% of everything is crud–applies to everything. Politicization by the Left–and latterly the Right, which has exacerbated matters considerably–has not helped, of course, but there would be bad climate science being done regardless.

Bad science produces bad policy, but the lack of nuance in the scientific debate that has been caused by the fierceness of the political debate is damaging to science itself.

Science is not about Bridgeman’s (or Carnap’s) operationalism, or Popperian falsification. Science is Bayesian: it deals in what is more or less plausible given the evidence.

Given the evidence, it is more plausible than not that humans are having a potentially significant impact on global heat content. Given everything we know about computer modelling, it is more plausible than not that our models are not very predictive and thus the risks are hard to quantify in politically useful ways. Does a 1% risk of catastrophic change justify a Klein worth of unworkable utopian policy? That will depend on where you stand in the first place.

These are legitimate differences in Bayesian priors, to be settled by more evidence and argument, although hopefully without the tens of millions of dead people that were required to finally gain grudging acceptance in some quarters that Marx and Lenin might not have quite had all the answers to the problems of the human condition after all.

But to indict an entire field of scientific investigation based on the politicization of its most prominent members is problematic.

I came away from the book with a much deeper understanding of how the politics of climate change has tended to corrupt scientists who are engaged with it, but having seen science from the inside I don’t have a lot of illusions to shatter in that regard. Science is done by humans, and humans have some significant design flaws. Never-the-less, the humans who are doing climate science are not done yet. The great thing about science is that the truth is robust, and as we stagger in our drunkard’s walk across the landscape of plausibility we shouldn’t be too concerned if we deviate from the optimum by a good deal now and then. It is too be expected.

We do need to resist embracing policies that we know on reasonably firm economic, political ad sociological grounds will be disastrous. Revenue-neutral carbon taxes, and nuclear power, however, are two policies that are not disastrous and would be effective in reducing human contributions to climate change. Why we are not pursuing them, but instead spending ridiculous amounts of money to engage in endless and largely futile negotiations, is a question that Darwall’s history answers pretty clearly.

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Reflection on a Road Not Taken

A reasonable number of years ago I was dating four women, which was definitely one too many.

I’m slightly embarrassed to say I don’t remember all of their names. For the sake of decorum and not revealing who I do and do not remember, let’s call them K, L, M and N… N being the fourth, who will figure significantly in this little morality tale.

I’d been divorced for a while and separated for much longer. I was coming out of a period of seven years or so where my life had been pretty much obliterated. I had dropped out of academia because it was clear there was no viable career there for me, which was a wrenching choice it took me a long time to accommodate myself to. A three year period had passed in which people I loved died like clockwork on a twelve-month schedule, in one case in a way that I felt responsible for. My marriage came apart, although thankfully the love it was based on remained, thanks in no small part to the generosity and decency of my ex-wife.

I was trying to construct a new life out of the wreckage, and too be clear: the wreckage was mine. I was the ultimate cause of it. Who I had been was not a viable human being. But coming to bits was only justifiable if I could create something better from the pieces.

I had had brief and disastrous relationships with a couple of people in the year previously and then taken a long hiatus to get my head together. As a barrier to anyone getting too involved–which had been a problem in the past, on one side or the other–I made the conscious decision that I’d see more than one person, and be completely open about it with all of them, with the proviso that there would be no sex involved. That was the threshold of exclusivity: have sex with one, abandon the rest.

It was a busy time, particularly when N was added to the mix. We had some interests in common–scuba diving in particular–that made her interesting, and the chemistry was incendiary. She was–at least at the level of innuendo–kinky as hell, although I was never quite able to figure out when she invited me up to her cottage for a paddle if she was talking about giving, receiving, or canoeing.

M and I kind of drifted apart–she was very nice and conventional and entirely not me.

L was also dating multiple people, one of whom she fell madly in love with. They are now married and the last time I ran into her she had a young child with her. We had the easiest “break up” imaginable, as we both went on a date with the intent to tell the other that we’d decided we only wanted to see one of the people we were seeing at the time.

But what I was reflecting on, due to an almost entirely orthogonal inspiration, was an offer N made for me to join her in the Caribbean, where she was staying with a friend on what I’m pretty sure was Little Cayman Island (where I’ve subsequently been with Carrie) although I don’t think she ever told me the name because it didn’t get that far.

The thing was, it would have been fun as hell. We’d have gone diving, eaten good food, had too much to drink, and likely gotten up to all kinds of sexual mischief.

But it wouldn’t have lasted. The memories would have been worth something, without doubt. Sir John Betjeman, the English poet laureate, famously answered when asked if he had any regrets in his old age that he wished he’d had more sex when he was younger.

But here’s the thing: a chronicle of sex forgone is not necessarily a bad thing. There are trade-offs. That non-lasting experience would have given me memories I’d likely treasure today, and subsequent experiences I’d likely appreciate a good deal less, because N was kind of nuts. I traded off that trade-off for something else: I told N no thanks and she immediately dumped me in fairly vitriolic language, accusing me of being untrustworthy for telling her the truth.

But I recognized that accepting her offer would be making a declaration of exclusivity with her, and apart from the stellar degree of sexual attraction–which was mostly based on psychological compatibility, because physically-speaking she was eight or nine years older than me and rather stout, and I certainly wasn’t anything spectacular in the physique department either–we were completely incompatible.

So I made a different choice, and K–the person I chose to be with at that time–is still a dear friend today. I had told her about the offer from N before I turned it down, because taking it up would have interfered with other plans I’d made with K. She told me many years later that when I said I was considering it she basically wrote me off. Fortunately she changed her mind when I made up mine.

The trade I was making was a very, very good one: a lifelong, loving friendship against a few tempestuous weeks of weirdness, which I’ve experienced to a sufficient degree on other occasions to satisfy my minimum lifetime requirements, although as a card carrying member of the masculine 40% or so of the human race I wouldn’t entirely close the door to further opportunities in that vein.

I didn’t know what either outcome would be, but the one I got is certainly not surprising based on the degree of admiration I had for K at that time. I trusted my sober, critical judgement, and sometimes my sober, critical judgement turns out to be pretty good.

We live in a society that romanticizes the impulse, the immediate, the instantaneous. But the truth is rarely spoken in the fanfare of desire, but rather in the quiet passages, the searching, curious music that is less bold, less obvious, less conventional. Impulse will rarely wait to hear those soft passages, and as such will miss out on some precious things.

I have very few regrets, having reached the middle years of my life and wandered into my fair share of dark woods. I doubt very much I’ll ever answer the question Betjeman was asked in the way Betjeman did. My list of regrets is only half a dozen items long, and consists entirely of things I wish I had done for others but did not, and a couple of times when I behaved in a willfully mean-spirited and hurtful manner.

If I must have regrets–and since they are part of the human condition I guess I do–then these seem to me reasonable regrets to have. Trading off lasting friendship for transient pleasure? Not so much.

Posted in life | Comments Off on Reflection on a Road Not Taken

Statistical Effect of Block Voting

Will block voting result in poor election predictions?

The left-wing political organization LeadNow is running what appears to be a pretty effective campaign to organize voter blocks in swing ridings, where Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are at risk of winning due to vote splitting between the nominally progressive parties.

I’m impressed and gratified by the apparent success of this effort, although I wish it was being run by a group less avowedly partisan and basically hostile to Canadian democracy (LeadNow supports Partisan Proportional Representation, which would overthrow the fundamental basis of our democracy: that Parliament represents people, not parties).

But it got me to thinking about the effect of block voting on the process of statistical inference from polls.

Let’s take the new electoral district of Vancouver-Granville, which was designed to be a winnable seat for the local candidate who happens to belong to a private political organization called “The Conservative Party of Canada”, whose leader will dictate how that candidate, if elected, votes on every issue in Parliament, regardless of what the people of the electoral district think.

There are just under 77,000 voters in the district, and 5200 of them have pledged to vote for the NDP to oust Stephen Harper from his temporary dictatorship in the Prime Minister’s Office. A poll was taken in September of 541 residents that gave 36% support for the NDP and 30% of the Liberals.

Of those people polled, we can predict that about 40 of them were amongst the 5200 who have now pledged to vote NDP. Based on 60% voter turnout and the idea that the sample is random and voters uncorrelated, we would predict (40/541)*(77000*0.6) ~ 3400 votes. But in fact they represent 5200 votes, assuming (not unreasonably) that every one of the people pledged are going to vote.

So there is a discrepancy in the polls of almost 2000 votes, in an election where fewer than 3000 votes separate the front-runners.

It would not shock me, therefore, to see a lot fewer Conservatives elected in October than the current predictions are suggesting, because the inference model being used to turn polls into seats may be well and truly broken due to the effectiveness of block voting.

In terms of keeping private political organizations on their toes, this may not be a bad thing at all.

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VIIF 2015 Part 2

This’ll be a lot shorter as it basically only covers this morning’s class, which was on action improv with Brad McNeil, who is also my Conservatory coach at Instant Theatre.

I was kind of skeptical of the idea of doing action-movie genre improv, but came away with a much better appreciation of the possibilities and a reminder of why I love theatre in the first place.

It’s magic: we run around on stage pretending to be who we are not, evoking alternate realities and absurd possibilities, and if we do it right the audience not only buys it, they do at least half the work for us.

Theatre is about playing make-believe, and our job as actors is not just to play ourselves, but to use techniques that make the audience play it too. Some of these techniques are absurd in themselves, but the magic is that they can actually work to the extent that you can do big picture action movie improv, with armies and missiles and explosions, all on a stage that’s a few metres long and a couple deep.

The techniques were simple, often (seemingly) silly things, and the narrative leans heavily on genre tropes, but the possibilities are endless. I like really kinetic action, like the opening scene of the first Daniel Craig Bond movie where there was a foot-chase though a construction site. How do you do that on a small stage? It turns out to be possible by using a variety of techniques to provoke the audience’s imagination. It doesn’t take much: they want to believe, and if you give them the right pointers, they will be happy to follow them.

The idea of slowing things down to heighten tension and increase audience engagement is useful. So is the idea of “selling” the scene by reacting in a big way to a punch or other physical action against you. I’ve seen this before in the context of less action-oriented narratives, but it was cool to see how it worked–and how effective a fake punch can look–in fights.

Fighting wasn’t a huge part of my theatrical training, although I’ve been in roles where I’ve done sword-fighting and one where I was thrown to the ground in a fight. It’s been a loooong time since I’ve done anything like that, though, and it was fun to play around with it.

Other tricks included playing cars, planes and other vehicles with your hands, and folding space so characters could be inside them on one part of the stage while someone else’s hands were showing the outside, big-picture view elsewhere. Or the same player switching from outside to inside perspectives and back again. As soon as the audience sees the benefit they get from buying the technique, they’ll go along with it.

Cinematic techniques can be evoked by the way the players move. There’s a lot of fun to be had with that, as well.

Overall an excellent, useful workshop that explored an area I was barely even aware existed.

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VIIF 2015 Part 1

My brain hurts.

Last night ushered at Performance Works and saw some excellent improv that has now been buried buy subsequent events.

Today had workshops with Adam Cawley on the Game of the Scene and Bill Binder on the Math of Improv and then ushered again at Performance Works and saw the Sunday Service (crisp, fast, funny), a lovely duo from Calgary–Past Your Bedtime–doing a long-form rom-com, and Dark Side of the Room doing the deleted scenes from Die Hard looking at the film from the perspective of the black people who aren’t in it.

Mostly this is a brain-dump from the workshops.

Game. I have trouble with game. It’s kind of what John Gardner described as “jazzing around”. It’s not narrative. It’s a thing. And I confess to thinking of it as “the thing of the scene.” It is a game–it has rules–but thingness seems more appropriate.

I’m coming to see game as baroque, or maybe rococo. To hold up a building you need an arch. Arches are simple and boring. They curve up, they curve down. Big woop. So artists and sculptors got to embellishing them. Carving curlicues and stuff. That’s game. The arch is narrative. You can even get to the point where the arch is gone and you have nothing but the curlicues. Pure game.

I learned enough that I can now really see that game is something every improviser should have in their toolbox. I have the luxury–the privilege–of doing things the hard way, but learning tools that make life easier is still a very good idea.

I loved the emphasis on audience that was in both workshops. Audiences love the game of the scene, and being able to go that way helps me give the audience what they want.

Adam’s workshop was full of valuable advice. I loved his analogy to the verse and chorus of a song, and can see that the game should re-emerge from the narrative much like a song “breaks into” the chorus. His emphasis on heightening via things becoming more rare, more intense/severe, or more inappropriate/weird was very valuable.

He identified sources of game in anything that happened more than once in a scene, anything that is uniquely interesting, or anything that gets a laugh.

The rhythm of the scene shifting back and forth between verse (narrative) and chorus (game) is critical, but both should intensify as the scene goes on until you hit the blow line (because scenes with game will typically have a blow line, where the game has reached its ‘furthest south’).

I liked Adam’s ideas about game in long form, and how to identify it by asking who the scene is about, simplifying the game to a single phrase, and then bringing that character back to recapitulate the game in a different member of the work/home/play trio.

Between workshops I met a woman who identified me as a writer by my intense hunt for just the right notebook in that shop in the Net Loft that sells stationary stuff. I got talking to her and she has successfully marketed a book on sailing with dogs. We exchanged cards. One of the big marketing lessons I learned from running Predictive Patterns is: always be networking, and the best way to network is to do someone a good turn. I’ve not read her book yet so I won’t link it, but once I have, I will.

Back to the workshops.

Having words to identify stuff is important. If you can describe the game in a simple phrase you can work its dimensions. “A guy who accepts everything”, “A girl who is angry at everyone”, whatever. Identify it and it can be played.

Bill Binder’s workshop on the math of improv was exactly what I needed right now. I was saying to our long-form instructor at VTLS last week that I saw my job now was to learn to bring the two halves of my personality together in improv the way I do in poetry.

Joe Bill’s intensive in August was great for the emotional side of my brain. Bill Binder’s workshop today really helped me clarify how to use that deeper emotional access by controlling the variables of my character.

One of the great tricks of modern science is reductive materialism: we break stuff down to component parts that constitute the complex collective we care about.

In the case of a scene, seeing things as simple as space, speed, height, stillness, motion, and stance broken out as variables that could be changed in a quasi-independent manner (quasi-independent because its the total derivative not the partial derivative that matters) was amazingly empowering and effective. Moving on to complex emotions described in terms of fractional intensities of a sub-set of basic emotions was like improv hyper-drive.

I’m big on evolutionary explanations, and so would argue that the four-F’s are likely behind our basic emotions: fighting, fleeing, feeding and fornication. But however you slice it, having a few basic emotions and entering a scene with each of them given particular settings lets you expand your range of emotional play.

For me, it felt like navigating emotional space: I’d choose a setting, conjure the emotion, find a bright spot in my emotional experience nearby, and go there. Way simpler and more effective than just “think of an emotion”. Reductive materialism for the win.

I also found a lot of stuff that has been missing in my object work. In future, I’m not going to do any object work without maintaining an awareness of how it fulfills some desire my character has. This came from an scene where I was doing very simple stuff with complete, isolated concentration. The only way to pour a cup of coffee with that degree of focus is if the character really, really wants a cup of coffee, and nothing else.

Tomorrow is more workshops, maybe taking in the Rookie League show if I’m still awake, and then sleep.

This is Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada. I have much to be thankful for.

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My Canada Includes Stephen Harper

My Canada includes Stephen Harper.

Unlike many of my progressive friends, I have an inclusive view of Canada. It’s a big country.

It includes everyone. Even Stephen.

It includes a history where “None is too many!” was a popular slogan, and “Il Duce” was much admired. Really. My mother was a young girl in the ’30’s, and has told me about how widely admired the Italian dictator once was. In Canada. My Canada.

My Canada has a history that includes head taxes, blue laws and the “benign” assumption that since native peoples were doomed anyway why not set up institutions that would assimilate them into the white man’s world as rapidly and efficiently as possible?

I am Canadian, and this is my Canada.

My Canada is the one that sent six hundred thousand men–always men–to war between 1914 and 1918. Men whom Robert Graves said were “the soldiers most likely to commit war crimes”, although he gave the award for the “world’s dirtiest soldiers” to the Australians.

There are a lot of ads running around social media right now saying anti-Canadian, anti-Bayesian nonsense like “I don’t want to live in a Canada that would re-elect Stephen Harper!”

Guess what: we already do.

We live in a Canada that has pulled some amazing stupid and evil stuff, and continues to do so.

My own family history includes a common soldier who was sent with his regiment to this young country to suppress the Riel Rebellion, which was led by a man we now say was one of the Fathers of Confederation.

My Canada is the nation that sent another million young men–always men–off to war between 1939 and 1945, which killed every friend my father had.

We are a nation of questionable choices.


Because Canada–my Canada, my beloved, glorious Canada that I came back to by choice despite the offer of my dream job building the next generation of spacecraft in the US—is entirely populated by human beings.

Humans are not my favourite species.

We are stupid, narrow-minded, selfish (and not in a good way), emotionally incontinent, tribal and smell pretty bad (I take transit, so I know.)

But humans are the only species I’ve got.

What humans are not and never will be is pure. Anything. We aren’t even purely human: we have a few percent Neanderthal DNA in the mix.

Anyone who applies any kind of litmus test to humans in the name of purity–national, racial, cultural or anything else–is part of the problem. We do not trust in our own righteousness, but in the fond hope we’ll muddle through somehow.

“Purity” is an idiotic, anti-Bayesian idea, that stands in the way of every kind of moral progress. We rejoice in hybrid vigor, a diversity of priors.

“Purity” is the idea that leads to a woman who has had sex once being “ruined” and a man who has one cowardly act on his resume’ being shamed for life.

“Purity” is the idea that monocultures are superior to a nation of mongrels, which is empirically false, as someone named Adolph learned the hard way.

“Purity” is the idea that a cup of truth in a barrel of falsehood is a falsehood, and a cup of falsehood in a barrel of truth is also a falsehood, which is nonsense: I would far rather have a barrel of truth with a cup of falsehood–impure though it be–than a cup of truth in a barrel of falsehood. This is the gospel according to Bayes.

“Purity” is the idea that my Canada does not include Stephen Harper.

My Canada is large. It contains multitudes. It acknowledges the ugly errors of its past and works at doing better in the future. It does not reify some myth of purity, some national or cultural litmus test that Others Stephen Harper and his supporters, however much we may disagree with them.

My Canada has a place for Stephen Harper.

That place is not, however, the Prime Minister’s Office.

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