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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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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Autumn Fire

Bright fires of autumn kindle in the dusk
shedding sparks of summer down the breeze:
crackling embers underfoot, the husks
of springtime hopes on other bonfire eves
when all was green and growing in the light
of younger days upon a younger Earth,
warmth and laughter turning back the night
as friends all gathered ’round the stoney hearth.
Today at dusk the sky is clear and cold
yet still there’s beauty flaming on all sides:
trees that will not yield without a bold
extravagant display of living pride.
What lives must die as autumn brightly burns
To live again when spring at last returns.

I’ve just read Those Who Write for Immortality, by H. L. Jackson, a specialist in Romantic literature, which is an interesting study of both “successful” and “failed” Romantic poets and novelists.

It’s easily the best inquiring into both what artists are trying to do and what artists can reasonably expect to do I’ve ever read.

One of the big differences between the arts and science is that while there are certain qualities in art that make one work objectively better than another, measures according to those criteria account for only a small fraction of the variance between “great” and “forgotten” works of art. Whereas in the sciences, and to a lesser extent engineering, good work remains good work forever. It may no longer be relevant or cited, but facts do not fluctuate with time: “Light from the sun consists of rays of varying refrangibility” is as it was 300 years ago when Newton wrote it in his “Opticks”.

We see this with the Romantics: who won and who lost in the competition for humanity’s very limited attention was a much a matter of accident as talent. Wordsworth and Keats were good poets. So were Crabbe and Cornwall. Scott and Austen were good novelists. So was Brunton.

It’s irritating for a writer to think that our work will be remembered, or not, because of factors as irrelevant as the Victorian’s mania for illustration, the suitability of our work for children, and the vagaries of politics that may elevate a working class poet or cast them down. Likewise, the stigma of contemporary popularity can be the death knell of immortality, as any work that is too well-received by audiences of its time might reasonably be suspected of being too much of its time to be interesting to others. And so on.

Jackson–an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto–writes thoughtfully and engagingly. She is not afraid to put forward her personal responses to the various authors she studies, and she is straightforward about the limits of her study. Still: this kind of honest empiricism is valuable no matter what the field, and as a writer who has asked, as any writer does, “Why am I doing this?” her work gave me a much clearer idea of the answer than I’ve had before.

I don’t ever expect to be able to sell most of my work, so I barely have any contemporary audience, and I have no reason to believe there will be one in the future. I write in mostly unpopular forms. Poetry is a dead art and my kind of lyric, formal poetry is even more dead. This little pastoral meditation on a tree I saw while walking back from canoeing tonight is about as fashionable as I get, and I’m only two hundred years out of date with it.

So why do I do it? Why did I spend five years writing a novel that a tiny handful of people have read and fewer have enjoyed?

Because these are things that I believe, and I believe they need to be said, and if I don’t say them, no one will. Originality is one of the universal values of art, and I work hard at creating what others are not, what is unique to me. Everything is derivative of something else, but it’s possible to pour new whiskey into old barrels.

I don’t really care if my work sells or finds the multiple audiences that it needs to become popular and have some lasting fame. It would be nice if it did, but I have so little control over any of that even in the brief time I am alive that it’s pretty much pointless.

I make the work, and the work speaks for itself. It’s all I know how to do, despite starting to pick up on some of this “marketing” stuff all the cool kids are talking about. Maybe it’ll help me get my work in front of eyes that find it delightful. That would be nice. But fifteen years into my second stint at poetry and writing, it’s clear that it’s the work itself that matters to me most, and that the value I place on the work–on the fact of having made it–is sufficient and possibly necessary for me to do it. Everything else is secondary.

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Improv and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

This is a long and probably boring meditation on personal change inspired by the improv intensive that Joe Bill did a couple of weeks ago at VTSL’s Improv Comedy Institute. It was an incredible experience, and I can still feel pieces of it percolating down into the deeper darkness of my mind, changing me as they go.

Change is a tricky thing, and this little essay is going to go skittering all over the place, but the central idea is: our psychological identity is structural, but it’s built on top of a relatively unstructured, amorphous foundation of base impulses and emotions, and if we can drop down to the foundational level it gives us a bunch of tools for changing ourselves in ways that are fairly profound but also relatively painless.

Consider this a bit of thinking out loud to help me through my current process of change, which is ultimately being driven by a couple of things that have nothing to do with improv. If it’s useful to anyone else, great!

As I said, our identity is primarily structural–about which I’ll say more below–but the relatively unstructured emotional foundations are part of our identity too, although they are pretty generic. The Four F’s of evolutionary biology (Fighting, Feeding, Fleeing and Reproduction) that drive most of our emotions are as near to universal as anything, because none of us emerged fully-formed from the head of Zeus: we are the result of an elaborative process operating on the underlying clay of our animal ancestors, and no amount of culture layered on top can change that.

We are evolved social primates, and we come to adulthood after a long process of formal and informal education, so that a typical young adult has a few major structures that constitute their identity. These may relate to their position in their family, their educational or athletic or artistic attainments, and their position relative to various social institutions like political parties, religious organizations, or other volunteer or community groups.

Think of each of these as trees growing from the emotional soil. They are each of them structured, but they have grown up at least somewhat independently of each other. They stand apart from each other, and that means we interact with the world in different modes, depending on which tree we’re climbing at the moment.

The thing is, as we grow these different trees taller over the course of our lives, their branches start to run into each other, and the ideas written on the leaves of one may contradict those written on the leaves of another, so depending how we get to the same place we end up with two different and possibly contradictory beliefs about the same thing.

The classic Freudian contradiction is “I am a good son/daughter” on the “family” tree vs “I’m really pissed off at my parents about a bunch of deep stuff” on the “life experience” one. Another popular contradiction in some countries is “Evolution is true” vs “The Bible is true”. At the beginning of the twentieth century we also had, “Electromagnetic theory is true” against “Galilean relativity is true”, which is why I mention the structure of scientific revolutions in the title. The process of personal change and scientific progress are remarkably similar.

One move people make when they feel themselves getting into contradictory territory is to twist the branches of one or more trees out of the way, so they don’t approach each other so closely. Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of the “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” was one of the more ambitious attempts at this: he just declared the trees marked “religion” and “science” don’t have to overlap.

All such attempts fail, because the reality we inhabit is one particular way at any moment in time. This is the law of identity, and there’s good reason to believe that beings like us are limited to experiencing the world in ways that conform to it.

The practical problem is clear. If we believe that human nature, for example, is both evolved by a process that is just barely sufficient to create adequacy and that human nature was created in the image of a universal ideal that has been corrupted, we are in trouble because what we believe about things conditions how we act toward them, and those particular beliefs push us toward contradictory actions: are we just muddling through, or are we seeking salvation? There will be cases where those two beliefs imply incompatible actions, so we have to choose one and not the other.

Again: each of us is a little grove of trees growing out of the soil of emotion and experience, and over the course of our lives the branches of those trees will run into each other now and then.

Another way of dealing with this reality is to avoid the problem. If you don’t think too much, don’t learn too much, and as much as possible avoid experiencing anything new, the number of collisions will be minimal and you’ll die happy. A lot of people just stop learning very much in their early 20’s, and what they’ve got at that point is adequate to carry them through the rest of their life, which given the haywired mess I was in my early 20’s has always kind of impressed me.

The goal of such people is to limit their learning at most to things that look like growth at the tips of the branches of the tress they already have, and to keep the branches of their little grove well-spaced, so the tree marked “religion” never runs into the one marked “science” or “technology” and “work” never runs too hard up against “family”, and so on. Avoiding cognitive dissonance is a way of keeping the branches of our various trees apart.

There are also people who avoid contradictions by simply denying them, or being too damned stupid to see their belief that the Bible prohibits gay marriage contradicts their belief that there’s nothing wrong with their own three divorces and remarriages.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the people who throw caution to the winds and strive throughout their lives to keep learning, but do so in a way that grows new trees or extends existing ones in carefully controlled ways. They’ve mastered surgery so they take up cooking. They learned to paint so they take up skiing. Or they learn one thing in astonishing detail, growing that tree so much taller than the rest that its branches are far above the rest of the grove. Academics tend to be like this: they are free to explore any question within their own subject because they know it will never get close to anything else in their lives.

Then there are the integrators, who for whatever reason have decided that there only ought to be one tree, one massive trunk that branches out in all directions. They–or I guess I should be honest and say “we”–spend our lives figuring out how to map parts of our different trees onto each other, or how to kill off old structures we’ve found to be useless or damaging. People like this tend to go where the cognitive dissonance is highest because that’s where the interesting stuff happens. We seek out the contradictions in our own beliefs because they identify places where we have unifying work to do.

Sometimes people like this try to start from scratch, growing a whole new tree of knowledge (you knew I was going to use that eventually, right?) that subsumes all the rest, which are left to wither. Joseph Smith, Karl Marx and Siddhartha Gautama are of this kind.

I think of myself more as a banyan kind of person: gathering my grove into a hybrid trunk that still has a lot of internal structure, even though it has a kind of unity. There are still a bunch of weird little shrubs growing loose as well, because I’m not totally sold on the idea of One Big Tree any more. There’s no reason why a well-tended and diverse garden around a central tree can’t be a pleasant place to pass a lifetime.

But still, given this model, lasting structural change can only take place in a couple of ways:

1) Grow a new tree that captures some new aspect of yourself

2) Trim (or chop down) and old tree or branch that’s blocking the sunlight, infested with parasites, entangled with other, healthier trees or branches, or is rotten and fragile.

3) Some combination of the two, which may include grafting a bit of an old tree onto a new one before you kill it off, or simply moving a branch around within an existing tree by cutting it off one place and grafting it on another. I do a lot of that.

It’s important to remember that most learning isn’t like this: it’s just growing your grove, tending your garden, elaborating on the structures you’ve already spent a lifetime developing. This is as is should be. If you’re undergoing extensive structural change every single day–especially by the time you reach my age–you’re probably doing something wrong.

Incrementally “growing out” our existing structures is also the least painful but slowest way to change who we are. Most of our education is like this, and it can and does create permanent, profound change in who we are and how we experience and interact with the world. It’s limited by whatever structure we start with, though, unless we’re starting from scratch on a subject and growing an all-new tree.

But that kind of change can only take us so far, and Joe Bill’s intensive gave me a nice contrast between incremental change and structural change.

In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn argued that science changes like this: decades or centuries of “normal science” that grows incrementally, interrupted by periods of revolutionary change to reconcile the contradictions that had accumulated over that time. This seems to me a pretty good metaphor for life: we go along living, blissfully unaware that by learning this or that we’re eventually going to reach a point where we have to admit to ourselves that our belief that anthropogenic climate change has the potential to end human civilization and kill billions of people contradicts our long-standing opposition to nuclear power (which is currently our only zero-emission replacement for base load coal and oil, which account for some 80% of human CO2 emissions). Or something like that.

In the early twentieth century physicists faced the problem that their theory of electromagnetic phenomena contradicted the idea that velocities were simply additive, so if two cars were driving toward each other each with a speed of 50 kilometres per hour they would have a mutual speed of 100 kilometres per hour. Also, the orbit of Mercury wasn’t quite right. Small things, but they caused decades of upheaval and the destruction and reformation of two hundred years of accumulated structure.

None of that revolutionary change could have happened without the incremental change that preceded it, and once the dust had mostly settled from the revolutionary change we happily went back to the incremental change of normal science, which a century later is still clunking along. The two kinds of change depend on each other and support each other, and a great deal of the old structure persisted through the change.

The thing about revolutionary change though, is that it involves throwing away or tearing down structures you’ve spent a lot of time and effort building up.

It also hurts, if you’re conscious while it’s happening.

The worst, most painful kind of change is when we can’t just grow a new tree or graft on a bit of another one, but are stuck in a way that requires us to change the structure of an existing tree–call it “Social Interaction”, say–in place, because we can’t afford to throw away all the knowledge it contains. We can’t go back to the start. We have to fix it. Branches that used to be separate have to come back together, or two branches that used to both come off the trunk to turn into one branch off the trunk with the other growing out of it, and so on.

Imagine what our bodies would look like at the age of 20 if we had a reasonably high degree of control over their basic structure. A kid who was bullied might have seen fit to move a hand around to their back so they could use it to ward off attacks. Other kids might have grown extra arms at the expense of well-developed legs, and so on. That’s pretty much what our psychological structure often looks like at that age: a collection of parts that are set up to do the things we needed them to do while adolescents but that aren’t necessarily well-suited for the rest of our lives.

What happens then is more like a wind storm or a chain saw: major branches get chopped off or blown away and new growth replaces them with things that can accommodate the new reality of adulthood. As adults we might go through this process several times over our lives as we run into more and deeper contradictions and falsehoods in our basic beliefs about ourselves and the world.

All of that hurts.

Organisms evolved pain as an adjunct to homeostatis and integrity. Pain is a signal that the unity that constitutes our identity–either physical or mental–is being damaged, and motivates us to act in ways that stop it. Pain is an evolved response to damage.

Structural change–even positive, healthy, necessary change–is damage (from the point of view of existing structures) so it hurts.

This is what makes learning–even incremental elaboration on stuff we already know–hard.

There is a lot of good to be had from incremental learning. Although my early training–decades ago–was more wholistic, most of the improv instruction I’ve had recently has been incremental: a mix of learning the rules and practising them. The rules are things like, “Don’t ask too many questions” and “Avoid transaction scenes” and “Listen” and “Make big emotional responses” and “Commit to a character” and so on. These lessons are combined with exercises that illustrate and implement the rules, or that violate them to demonstrate that following them is a good thing.

This is all good, solid necessary “normal science”: if we didn’t do this kind of thing there would never be revolutionary change, which is entirely dependent on the incremental steps that build up an inventory of contradictions that have to be resolved via restructuring. The trick is to make that restructuring painless enough to be possible.

That’s where Joe Bill’s thing comes in.

We were all at least a bit experienced so we were presumed to know the rules, but the style of teaching wasn’t about the rules at all. It was about the state of mind, and it was about breaking down existing structures so we could reconstruct ourselves in new ways.

It was painful, but a hell of a lot less painful than change of this kind usually is. It was also fun, in the way that any difficult shared experience is fun.

When we engage in rules and practice we are treating the rules as signposts that point us toward improv nirvana: the open and creative and spontaneous and emotionally engaged state of mind that gives us the flexibility and freedom to inhabit a character completely and react with authenticity as that character to any situation, no matter how weird or unexpected.

Those signposts point along an incremental road, one that is safe, staid and plodding.

Joe Bill’s approach was to induce that state of improv nirvana via what I’m going to call “hypnosis” (which is how he described it at one point) and let us experience it. We weren’t “following the rules” down the incremental path. We were instead transported directly to a place where the rules were simply built into the basic physics of the world, and we were “just” experiencing and interacting as was permitted or required by the nature of that place.

I’ve studied hypnosis a bit–sufficiently to be able to induce a reasonable trance and implant an effective post-hypnotic suggestion in a willing subject, even if they aren’t particularly hypnotizable–and I really do think that what Joe was doing was kind of like that.

The key to hypnosis is disruption. Temporal, sequential, Bayesian consciousness–where all our structural identity lives–is a relatively delicate thing, which is why we are so often in so much psychological pain: we bruise easily, and break without much more difficulty.

But it also means that with the right inducement, we can disrupt those structures for good. Or evil. Humans will believe anything under the right circumstances. Completely crazy things, like “the toxicity of a substance is tightly correlated with the complexity of its name.”

It’s a somewhat dangerous business, but I got the impression that Joe Bill knew exactly what he was doing. He observed all of us carefully and suggested specific exercises that helped each of us in different ways.

The basis of the technique is to take the student down into the primordial emotional ooze and then bring them back up in another place, a kind of a shadow-land, a place that we have imagined into existence, where we’ve actually integrated all that we’ve been learning about improv into our identity. Maybe other people experienced this quite differently, but that’s how it was for me.

Then we got to play around in that place, to experience it and grow into it and make it a little more real, before inevitably returning to the ordinary world.

Rather than burn down any major structures or reformat existing ones or build new ones, we simply climbed all the way down into our emotional foundations and imagined a temporary, transient, quick and flimsy structure into existence, a prototype based on the rules we’d already learned and guided by Joe’s advice.

As these things go, it was pretty painless–excruciating, but bearable and even fun–although it was also a profound change in state. That’s fairly remarkable.

The trick now, for me at least, is how to recapitulate that temporary structure into something more permanent so my performance will get better and stay better. The other trick is how to accommodate that structure in the rest of my life, or rather how to accommodate the rest of my life to the existence of that new structure, those new branches in my banyan tree that are growing apace, unbalancing the whole.

In terms of performance, I felt I got places that I want to be. I was in the right state of mind, letting the scene grow organically, and I was engaged, listening, and without fear. There’s some law in economics that says, “If something has happened, it is possible.” That applies here: I now know I am able to do those things, even if I can expect to struggle to find my way back to that place. But I can do it, and I can grow a more permanent structure that will let me get there easily. I know it’s possible, and I have some solid ideas about how to get to it and rebuild it. Now all I have to do is practice.

In terms of my life, making room for that new structure puts some pressure on the old ones. I came away from the weekend knowing that I’ve been hesitating to commit to writing for a living because I’m too comfortable where I am in my life. I’ve worked a long time to get here and for the past few years I’ve been letting myself cruise along. I could do that for the rest of my life if I felt like it.

But I don’t feel like it. I’m not happy being content. So as the lessons and experiences from that weekend percolate down into the darkness, the compass of my life is swinging around, and I’m taking concrete steps to move in a new direction.

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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!

Posted in ethics, politics, prediction, technology | Comments Off on There was only one catch…

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.

Posted in improv, life, writing | Comments Off on Improve Intensive: part two

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!

Posted in improv, life, writing | Comments Off on Improv Intensive: part one

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.

Posted in language, life, poem, poetry, villanelle | Comments Off on Feminine Villanelle

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 on a 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