A quick-fire blog to share thoughts on improvisation, community, resilience, psychology and other things dear to me

"What these auteurs truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros. (Also: ritual humiliation. Humiliation is a big part of it, too.)"

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"The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite. These people as unworldy as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material, to construct in miniature a strange and utterly individual image of the world."

- From Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story

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I was disappointed by Venkatesh Rao’s book Tempo, because I expected so much of it. Covering business, time perception and improvisation? Here’s me with a PhD in the psychology of time/memory, experience in the kinds of business environments discussed, and a practitioner of improvisational theatre. But the parts of the book didn’t add up to a whole for me, and I didn’t find much that was useful. But one thing I found very useful: cheap tricks.


imageFig1. - Cheap Trick.

In Rao’s words:

'[A cheap trick is] a key organizing insight that motivates the action in the rest of the deep story. Every such insight is flawed, since it is based on excluding some part of reality as noise. This will eventually catch up with you, so the insight merely  buys you a certain amount of time.

If your wrong answer happens also to be elegant, it will compactly explain the part of reality that you do include, and provide leverage. If this leverage can bring you rewards within the time you’ve bought, you’ve cheated nature: earned real rewards from fake truths, and fled with your ill-gotten gains before nature takes her revenge through unintended consequences. The cheap trick is the insight that allows you to locally and temporarily trick nature into bestowing disproportionate rewards on you.’

The idea squares our desire to model reality with the fact that reality can’t be perfectly modelled: too much chaos, too much agency, too much complexity. Despite this we can still discover angles that squeeze reality down to a few fruitful variables that seem particularly true within this historical moment, context or whatever, and exploit that until we decide to discard it, or reality gets the better of us.

I think Rao is particularly interested in targeting investors, entrepreneurs,  and possibly life hackers, by giving them a piece of cognitive architecture to think about when to get in and out of commodities/making free-to-play apps/pick up artist techniques. But I find it a helpful way to think with a bit of groundedness and humility about just about any model, maxims, insight, technique, or tool. Reality is infinite, so any one true way is going to break down. Working for you? Rockin. You’re currently operating within the groove of the cheap trick.

Obligatory improvisation reference - see what Rachel is talking about here
I was also talking about it on Rob Grundel’s old blog (on this post about Mick Napier’s excellent Improvise)

Obligatory Jung reference pending - lost my book.

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If you’re interested in my critique of the book, a little more here, but it’s a bit unstructured; if you haven’t read the book it won’t make a lot of sense. I had planned a comprehensive review but the book didn’t hold my attention and I felt a bit like a nitpicker.

Issues I had:

  •   It felt very much like a whistle stop tour, a pot pourri, and frequently second-hand endorsements of other ideas. Sometimes it feels like he is just showing off his personal canon - he states “it is worth reading one of the many excellent popular treatments” on chronobiology, but I’ve read a bunch of that stuff, and generally, it’s not worth it. Or if it is, he ought to explain why.
  •   He sometimes plays fast and loose with notions to bolt them in to his theory. He shoehorns entropy into his model, breaking its meaning, argues that emotions arise when we are forced to move at a different tempo to that which we choose to, which is a pretty radical psychological theory to prove in under a page…
  •    Related to this, many of his frames of reference are from warfare - so the emotion argument stems from the way in which Shock and Awe is instilled on the battlefield. There is a vast emotion literature that just doesn’t map to this, and it seems unnecessary to borrow this one on fairly flimsy grounds.


In a sense, I feel like he is hoist by his own petard. He doesn’t consider that his warfare research may be examples of conceptual cheap tricks - that emotion is driven by tempo, but only in the local conditions of the battlefield.

It would have been better to have dropped the unifying theme of Tempo and been cut up into three or four semi-related topics, as a kind of blog-book; or it could have been really finely edited and developed to have a tighter, credible theme. The tempo ideas are interesting food for thought, but as it stood it didn’t naturally unify the content, so it tempted Rao to bend things to fit it into place.

Since then I read Refactor your Wetware by Andy Hunt. It had fewer things that were wholly new to me (mix of GTD, neuroscience, and social psychology findings) but was integrated really well, I’d much rather go for Hunt. I left that book with half a dozen things to-do, and a bunch of snippets of interesting facts to plug in to things.

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"I try to tell my grief and it all becomes comic."

- Heinrich Heine, 19th Century poet and essayist

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Thanks to Michael Brunström for getting me involved in this little art game.

I didn’t know much of Chagall’s work, so I’ve had a nice afternoon checking out some of his astonishing pieces. My favourite is the blue circus.

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http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/N/N06/N06136_10.jpg

I’ve always been fascinated by the circus, and this painting captures so much of it: the danger wrapped in smiles, the making acrobatics and animals all-of-a-piece despite how incongruous that would seem outside of the tent, the atmospheric gloom punctuated by light. The bouquet of flowers descends at the same trajectory as the trapeze swinger, so we see that in the circus the act *is* the reaction. And the woman enters into our view by breaking a frame - the rectangle of rope and bar - to be present with us, rather than screened safely away. The circus is spectacle, but it carries a magic that, when we are receptive to it, can be carried with us.

Chagall says ‘For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world.’ This makes me think of the great magician Magnus Eisengrim in the Deptford Trilogy, raised in a travelling ‘World of Wonders’:

'It's just the way things strike me, after the life I've lived, which looks pretty much like a World of Wonders when I spread it out before me, as I've been doing, Everything has its astonishing, wondrous aspect, if you bring a mind to it that's really your own - a mind that hasn't been smeared and blurred with half-understood muck from schools, or the daily papers, or any other ragbag of reach-me-down- notions'.

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""About the whole "the internet killed the underground" thing: no, it didn’t. What killed the underground was popularity. Whenever something becomes popular, people surge in and use it for their own purposes. As was written on the Nuclear War Now! Productions forum: "Trues use their social lives to empower the music. Falses use the music to empower their social lives." It’s that simple. When something becomes popular because it’s rebellious, the herd shows up to take part and use that "authenticity" like currency for their own needs. That adulterates what is and it becomes obliterated (although good people like Alan Moses and Andres Padilla keep the tradition alive! Heroes, if you ask me). The only solution is to rediscover the spirit of the past and apply it in any direction possible. You cannot imitate it from the outside-in; it must be from the inside-out. If this reeks of occultism to you, it should. This is esotericism, and it is the guiding philosophy of humankind anywhere that popularity has not already obliterated truth.""

- Attributed to one Brett Stevens, about metal: - quoted by James Raggi

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A story that really made an impression on me is The Castafiore Emerald, a comic book and one of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. The story concerns a weeken gathering at the house of Captain Haddock, Tintin’s pal who features in most all of the later adventures. Along the course of the book, many character’s we are now familiar with show up, and we spend a long time figuring out when the action happens.

Hergé’s works are all page turners, with a lot of attention paid to making the final panel of each two-page spread contain a seed of mystery or a big reaction to something we don’t yet understand, and it’s never been used better than in this book. Why? Because time and again, we think we are entering into the ‘point’ of the book, where the adventure begins, but it turns out to be just a minor moment of life - someone dropping a tray, or an annoying animal bothering someone. Gradually, a central mystery develops, but even that, in the end, turns out to be misleading.

Hergé plays with the form in a stupendous way. Is there a crime? Is there a villain? Can we enjoy the book if not?

And the first time I read it, the answer was: ‘No!’ I found the book disappointing as I was a kid who was after fisticuffs with bad guys and grand adventure. It stuck with me as the Tintin that didn’t. But it’s the one I come back to again and again, and marvel at what it achieves. The book survives on the characters and relationships - and to do that with minimal text and continuing within the style that had been so focused on adventure plots - is really great. In a way, it’s what Seinfeld always aimed for: a show about nothing.

(Posted this as part of the iversity course I’m doing on the Future of Storytelling).

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"Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation."

- St Augustine

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"Octopuses have large nervous systems, centered around relatively large brains. But more than half of their 500 million neurons are found in the arms themselves, Godfrey-Smith said. This raises the question of whether the arms have something like minds of their own. Though the question is controversial, there is some observational evidence indicating that it could be so, he said. When an octopus is in an unfamiliar tank with food in the middle, some arms seem to crowd into the corner seeking safety while others seem to pull the animal toward the food, Godfrey-Smith explained, as if the creature is literally of two minds about the situation."

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