We’re in the middle of a lockdown due to the coronavirus  SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 and is debilitating and killing a lot of people all over the world. It’s going to change the world in all sorts of ways we can only grasp at right now. It’s already doing a good job at pointing out the contradictions in what we call our normal affairs of life.

Or reminders that the government applauding our health workers also applauded the rejection of a pay freeze for nurses a few years previously.

Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily the case that the pandemic will shake people out of their preconceptions: even as exogenous (material reality) an event as a worldwide health crisis may not penetrate the partisan lenses people use to perceive reality.

I’ve gotten the sense that this may be an era that puts technology into sharp relief, especially in the ways it’s compromised by capitalism. From the debates about whether to turn the surveillance state onto pandemic monitoring (on the rationale that it’s already there, just tracking our consumer interests – note that many strongly disagree), to the bottom up fab-lab approaches that are bringing us things like rapid basic ventilatorsand protective visors but not without some litigation problems on the way. (Saving lives in a global pandemic mustn’t infringe copyright, after all.) If you want a good take on this side of things try Pat Kane’s article in the National.

Meanwhile, research serendipitously released this week suggests that craving for social contact resembles food cravings on the level of a neural pathway. We’re only in the very early days of this state of emergency, and isolation is going to produce its own share of strains. I feel for the university students who thought they were going home over the Easter holidays but now locked down into halls of residence, some apparently getting meals left at their door and so consigned – effectively, confined – to their room throughout most of the day. And I’m constantly minded of the older and more vulnerable folk – populations that I work with – who may be further isolated, for instance those in care homes who are currently denied visitors.

I feel very fortunate. We are renting a fairly spacious house, as we needed to take into account both of us needing home office space, and so we can easily take time out when needed, and time together otherwise. And we have a spacious and long-unmanaged garden that we are getting our teeth into too. We cleared a patch of straggly ground (including a monster root hunkered under the fence), re-gravelled the paths, created a new path, and started another round of planting.

Right now, we’re in the in-between. Normal life has spooled down, but new demands have not reared their head, at least not where we are. Responsibilities at work are focused on preparation – processes, policies, technologies to manage what may be coming.

fools progress

I’m receiving therapy at the moment, and have noticed that often sessions begin with me feeling a little absurd and acting unserious – in a bad way: deprecating rather than playful, my voice halting and sing-song, as if it doesn’t want to commit to what its saying, as if I don’t want to commit to believing that I can be any use to myself through this.

By the end of the session things are usually different. I find myself in a different register, also distinct from the register I found the week before. No longer self-conscious, no longer afraid to find a tone of seriousness, of commitment to my words being true, or at least true-for-now.

It’s the same journey again and again. I don’t start the session from where I left off, or if I think I do often discover that’s a layer of bullshit that just needs to be gently shaken off to find where I need to be today. And it’s good to actually realise that, that I don’t need to show up with progress. Whatever progress there is comes from a foolish beginning.

I’m finding myself wondering how much this is distinctive to the open-ended, solutions-free integrative psychotherapy approach I’m getting, and how much also crosses over to the patients I work with, in an approach that is certainly person-centred but is more explicitly technique-focused and treatment-like. And if there isn’t enough of it in there, is it useful to make a space for it?

January links

For 2020 I’m going to see if I can keep up some of the stuff I was blogging last year but decompose it a bit, so I don’t need to feel I have to cover every base to post something. Links are pretty easy, so here are some things I found interesting this month.

Our blanket fear of anything associated with the “C” word, and our blind belief that more screening is always good, beliefs rooted in what we used to know about cancer but is now outdated, are doing us great harm, in many cases more than the disease itself.

Curing Cancer, Curing Cancerphobia


Map naming and (vaguely) locating the CEOs of companies miserably producing more greenhouse. Now, it’s not as if those people grabbing a conscience and doing a Jerry Maguire would solve the problem – systems are going to system, and their replacement is ready and waiting in the corner office on the floor below – but it did strike me to see the names written out so starkly. I had the thought years back that at some point people would start pulling together blacklists of people (and their descendents) who contributed to the collapse, and membership on those lists would result in sanctions so severe that people would become very motivated to do whatever they could to get dad to stop the lobbying, for the love of god please dad they’ve tarred and feathered me twice this term already

Names and Locations of the Top 100 People Killing the Planet


Interest in medical improv has been growing in recent years, as medical schools and teaching hospitals increasingly value the skills it teaches, says Lisa Howley, PhD, AAMC senior director of strategic initiatives and partnerships. Research shows that effective communication can improve patient outcomes, and improv markedly increased communication skills in one study of pharmacy students. Now, researchers believe a new tool published this month can better measure the educational effects of medical improv. Developed by four medical schools, the scale found that participants in a six-hour enhanced medical improv course scored significantly higher than those with no improv training.

In-the-moment listening skills are a profound benefit of improv, says Amy B. Zelenski, PhD, an assistant professor and director of education for the Department of Medicine at Wisconsin.

A colleague once told her about a time when a patient offhandedly mentioned that a close relative had just died. “He just went on with his questions and ignored that information,” she says, “and then later thought, `Oh, man. Why didn’t I respond?’ That’s what improv does — it teaches people to set aside their agenda for the conversation and listen.”

Discovering interpersonal strengths and shortcomings through improv is potentially transformative, Watson believes. “It lets learners identify where they need to build muscle and where they’re flourishing. You’ll have the person who’s very eloquent but doesn’t know how to be quiet. Or a person who is fine handling anger isn’t good with sadness.”

No joke: The serious role of improv in medicine | AAMC


A friend from my cohort got involved in a project in Sierra Leone described in this article:

Imagine you live in a small community that has deep-seated suspicions against outsiders. The concept of infectious disease is unclear or misunderstood. Many in the community believe that illness is the result of a curse, and stigmatize the sick as a result. Then people from other countries descend in what appear to be space suits, disrupt community life, and take the sick away to quarantine them. Most of these people are never heard from again.

given the historical and cultural context, it’s not so surprising that there has been resistance to outside intervention in some areas where the Ebola outbreak is worst….What is needed is action that emerges from within Sierra Leone itself.

After its founding, Commit and Act connected with and helped to train dozens of Sierra Leone counselors in ACT, including the person who is now the current local director of Commit and Act, Hannah Bockarie.

The mission of the organisation is

“to bring psychotherapist support to traumatized people in areas of conflict.” Their goal is to help people find trust again and develop the courage to create their lives according to their own vision.

Since Commit and Act had established roots in Sierra Leone back in 2010, when the Ebola epidemic hit a few months ago, they were in a unique position to help. Bockarie was on the ground when the virus struck, and realized quite quickly that the ACT and PROSOCIAL models could be used in innovative ways to educate the population about the disease and help develop healthy behavioral alternatives that may assist in stemming its devastating tide. PROSOCIAL is a joint effort by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution Institute, and the ACBS to combine ACT with principles from the late Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, to foster prosocial groups.

In Sierra Leone (as in much of West Africa) it is customary to keep the bodies of dead relatives in the home for several days — praying over them, washing them, dressing them, even hugging and kissing them….it is incredibly difficult to get people to change burial customs that are so culturally important and entrenched. …But changing these customs — and fast — is of the utmost importance for obvious reasons: Ebola infection is highest at death

Bockarie has begun taking groups of people through ACT and PROSOCIAL sessions to help them come up with alternative burial customs that are in line with their values but still allow doctors and health worker to properly dispose of bodies.

The article describes one such solution, arising from community members and suggests that it is informed by the greater psychological flexibility accessed by the therapy, allowing people to change what needs to be changed while never letting go of core values.

Kissing the Banana Trunk: Will You Commit and Act in the Fight Against Ebola?

An antilibrary

This is a short antilibrary in the spirit of antilibrari.es.

Essentially it’s a list of books I own but have not read, with a loose preview of each. Its an oblique insight into my tastes and current interests, re-motivates me to read the books and think about what reading it is for, and might pique your interest to pick one up too.

Fiction

Summerland – Hannu Rajaniemi – about spies from the afterlife, Warren Ellis recommended and sounds very much his jam, so I suppose might be mine?

Folk – Zoe Gilbert – another Ellis recommendation. a dark and immersive folk magicky island community explored over the course of a generation, sounds like a pinch of 100 days of solitude, rpg world building, and slice-of life yawdlings

Memory Theatre – Simon Critchley – I bought this for someone else but never ended up giving it to them. Gets a blurb from David Mitchell who I like a lot, as a “mind game occupying a strange frontier between philosophy, memoir and fiction”, and seems to involve astrology, prophecy and 16th century weirdness.

A Conspiracy of Paper – David Liss – I got this in a charity shop ages ago. It’s about an 18th century Jew investigating debtors and felons, drawn into a financial mystery. Sounds like it will be drawing parallels and contrasts with our current financialised world, plus a paper trail and fun historical detail.

Zero Bomb – M.T. Hill – actually I think another Ellis recommendation. near future mystery with memory issues and a key artifact from the past holding information about the future. Actually sounds a bit like Memory Theatre, so maybe interesting to read back to back?

The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu – I’m not normally such a fan of harder sci fi but I loved the first of this trilogy, The Three Body Problem, which I read without knowing the story continued and at its climax was delighted that things were going further. What I enjoyed from the last book was the embedding in the Chinese context, including some harrowing parts set in the Cultural Revolution.

Nonfiction

The Second Circle – Patsy Rodenburg – recommended by someone who took an improv class built around it. it seems to be a text about finding ways to hack your awareness which is good, although I don’t know if it’s just a variant on the common mindfulness stuff you find around, or has its own weight.

Apollo 13 – James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger – account of the crisis mission. I’ve seen the film, find the whole situation riveting, have a suspicion that reading the events in black and white will be even more compelling. Also Kathryn has read it and thinks it’s one of the best non-fiction books she has ever read.

Cheer up Love – Susan Calman – a memoir of a Glasgow comedian who I don’t really know. Focusing on depression, so reading it would give me a bit of local context for my life in West of Scotland, and testimony on mental health. Apparently it’s very funny!

Jimmie MacGregor’s Scotland – Jimmie MacGregor, obviously. I have leafed through the start so it’s a bit of a cheat to include, but essentially, it’s a personal exploration of the country , ambling around without sticking to a linear chronology or strict geography. What I liked so far was his voice, sincere, gently humourous and compassionate, and how he brings to life the particularities of the white working class culture of his Glasgow beginnings (he argues, for instance, that racism has much less resonance in the city, with sectarian concerns swamping skin colour; among his anecodets he mentions an angry drunk bus passenger venting his frustration at the Nigerian conductor by saying “you big orange bastard”)

My Voice will Go With You: The teaching tales of Milton H Erickson – ed. Sidney Rosen. I got this because I love stories and stories used purposively, like fables or socratic texts, are very much my jam. He was a hypnotherapist and grandfather of creepy NLP too so I would also find it interesting to get a taste of what he was like, if he escapes the Grinder/Bandler vibe

Factfulness – Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling – I was gifted this book and I know some charges that Rosling is wilfully glass half full and that he may also rig his data presentations to obscure important facts; it also reminds me of the great critique of Steven Pinker’s progress accounts. But I’m sure there is some useful stuff to mine from there, and that feels like the approach – get in, extract, get out.

The Coming Age of Imagination: How Universal Basic Income will lead to an explosion of creativity – Phil Teer – I backed this on Unbound. Right now it feels a bit optimistic to be thinking about, but it looks like it gives a good history of prior experiments and bills itself as a “creative manifesto” which I’m totally on board with

Oxford Guide to Metaphors in CBT: Building Cognitive Bridges – various authors – another book on practical use of story and metaphor to change minds. I’ve dipped in and it’s technical but potentially really fruitful.

An End to Upside Down Thinking – Mark Gober – the subtitle is “Dispelling the Myth That the Brain Produces Consciousness, and the Implications for Everyday Life” which sounds up my street. I got invited to review this but only got it after I left by writing gig so if I get into it I will try and give it a proper treatment here.

More funny or less funny?

Comedy rule of thumb: as you understand more about what the joke refers to, does it get more funny or less funny?

Eg this video made me laugh when I watched it – watch it, it won’t hurt you!

But really when you reflect it simply shows that people don’t all have perfect english language skills, or typing skills, or have dyslexia. It’s most funny when you don’t think and stay in the zone of “wtf????? I can’t even…. who are these people?” (It’s still a bit funny just as a series of inventive nonsense words, mind.)

Many stand-up comedy routines are based on caricaturing people’s beliefs or giving simplified accounts of why they behave/behaved the way they do. “Catholics do x because they believe y”. “Public figure did P, they must be thinking to themselves Q.” To step in and “well actually” would be seen as a humourless move – and in some way’s that’s true, because the joke only works because of the careful positioning of (some of) the facts, and shining a light on it to see a fuller picture sends the shadows of humour scurrying away. So to obey the function of the encounter – spending an evening having a laugh – you have to dampen down that critical faculty.

But there is a cost to this. As this post was sitting in drafts I came across a synchronising article entitled A theory of jerks. The subtitle is “Are you surrounded by fools? Are you the only reasonable person around? Then maybe you’re the one with the jerkitude“, which the author unpacks:

To discover one’s degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found?

To remix that subtitle, you can see that a practice that incentivises being surrounded by fools – like look-at-those-idiots comedy – will jerkify you in time. Going further takes you to a zen proverb, “to set up what you like against what you dislike, this is the disease of the mind,” but we don’t need to proceed that far to see something is wrong.

And comedy doesn’t need this at all. Take this scene:

I’ve watched this again and again and still find it funny (and elegant, and poignant). Apart from the ever-present possibility of simple over-familiarisation, there is no air that gets let out of the joke by knowing more. And that’s because it is beautifully specific. There is no rhetorical generalisation involved about a group of people. Generalisations smooth over the details; in some instances that can be a price worth paying, such as sex-based screening for different illnesses, or allocating funding of certain services based on historical trends in areas. But in comedy, we mostly smooth over to make something seem more incomprehensible, dastardly and idiotic than it is, so we can surround ourselves with fools that we stand above (thus playing the jerk). And vitally, the details are where the life is. Here we see an encounter between two figures, not representing “the clergy” and “the outsider” but themselves; we are free to draw conclusions – you could decide that Hackman’s priest reflects benign privilege which doesn’t notice how its preferences steamroll those of the supposed guest – but the comedic edifice doesn’t collapse if we choose not to.

It might appear I’m not comparing like for like, as the earlier points focused more on observational comedy/critique rather than fictionally posed comedic film/sketch. Steven Wright is a good example of a stand-up whose material which doesn’t collapse when you think it through, for example “Hermits have no peer pressure.” Or this: “I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” These jokes open up a point of view that allow you to see life freshly, and the humour that sits within existence. If I stop and think about that person, holding onto that point of view, reading the dictionary, I find it funnier and funnier, and more and more amazing, not less.

Of course, if that person, that persona that Wright plays, was more knowing, then the whole thing wouldn’t go. So there is an element of deliberately missing-something that powers it. But the thing that is missing is a willingness to go along with the majority perspective, the willingness to not notice things, to instead smooth over. To generalise over the details. And we as audience are not asked to unsee anything, we’re asked to bear witness, as fully as we’re able to, to that point of view – pure, yes, and maybe unlikely to come across in real life, but not because it is a degeneration of what people believe (a straw man) but a platonic form – a way of thinking in which words are there to be poetic – that existence itself tries to bury.

Here’s another case where the joke depends on “not-knowing”:

But again, the not-knowing is inside the frame. We as audience are not asked to make generalisations or draw vague conclusions about why the duo are performing the way they are, conclusions that fall apart on reflection and make it less funny: on the contrary, we have to work hard to keep up. We are called upon to engage in accurate perspective taking, work our theories of mind for all they’re worth, otherwise Lou’s frustration won’t make us laugh. We need to get, even empathise with Lou, for the thing to work – and the more we do, the funnier it is. (Don’t get me started on the naturally reversal.) Again, where this would be problematic would be if it was framed with a generalisation, e.g. “rural people get confused so easily; they are all like…”

Here’s another Wright bit, one that does have an element of judgment toward others in it, but it still works by the rubric above

“I was in a job interview and I opened a book and started reading. Then I said to the guy, ‘Let me ask you a question. If you are in a spaceship that is traveling at the speed of light, and you turn on the headlights, does anything happen?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I don’t want your job.'”

It works for me because Wright does not say “anyone who is incurious about big weird questions is a waste of space”, which might sound satisfying – bammm! – but on reflection I would think about how this thin description of a human being doesn’t account for whether they are a good parent, feed animals, grow their own food, etc. But that’s not quite how Wright delivers the payoff. Instead, he indicates that he himself is the kind of person who could never be satisfied in that context – “I don’t want your job”. He is still living in the specifics, and articulating a personal rejection of 9-to-5 culture, which is entirely consistent with his persona but doesn’t demand that others see it the same way – especially as the persona is presented as fundamentally weird and outside the mainstream.

Still thinking this through. Right now I can say that any comedy that ekes out laughs by generalisations that fall apart on reflection are not my bag.

New keys and old keys

I use a keyboard configuration called Colemak, meaning when I type, the letters that appear aren’t the ones on the keys. I learned Colemak about 10 years ago, when I decided I wanted to learn to touch-type; you become quickly committed to all-finger touch-typing when even glancing at the keyboard, let alone trying to hunt-and-peck, only throws you off further. At work currently I have to use QWERTY again, and find it really unergonomic, having to stretch and shake off my hands with some regularity.

Colemak, like its inspiration Dvorak, shuffles the keys around such that common letters are closer to the home row (the middle one that your fingers will rest on) and more often assigned to your stronger fingers. Both Colemak and Dvorak also take into account, in different ways, factors like hand alternation (easier to type left-right-left-right than right-right-right-right) and reducing the same-finger ratio (something Qwerty will ask you to do a lot, eg LOL). Colemak advocates will argue that it gets these issues a bit more right than its predecessor, which revealed issues that Colemak has cleaned up.

The Colemak keyboard configuration.

But where Colemak differs most is that its changes are less comprehensive. Dvorak takes a purist approach, reconfiguration from the bottom up, requiring a lot of adjustments from the user. I understand this makes it harder to learn, but it also has some active costs, such as separating the keys Z, X, C and V, a gang which any power user of text finds invaluable.

Colemak ensures some continuity: Q stays in the corner – it’s a rare key so where was the harm of keeping it as is? (Dvorak shoved it to the bottom.) Similarly w, b, h, a, m all stay put too, little familiar islands that you don’t need to remap. And importantly, those text manipulation keys stay reassuringly where they always were. This little family may be purely arbitrary – what love should there be, really, between a c and a v? – but later keyboard users took that contingency and made it valuable, a step that can’t be recast by committee.

It’s important to dismantle dogmas, but amongst them are valuable traditions too. A totalising system doesn’t let you tell between them, but with care and interest, you can simply look to see.

improving improv

Elseweb I put together something I’m pretty proud of, a list of ways to help build the local improvisation scene in 2019. It’s here at the Open Heart Theatre blog. Doing it involved gathering together ideas from a bunch of people across the UK and beyond, and it was a rare example of Facebook really being useful. It was also a chance to flex writing muscles a little, as I’m not doing as much as I’m used to doing. Here’s a good point from one collaborator:

Believe in ourselves more. The UK scene has the world’s longest running improv show (Comedy Store Players) and started Whose Line which took improv into the mainstream. Keith Johnstone came from England, and we have inherited a rich theatrical tradition populated with leviathans. We have some of the most successful improv shows worldwide (Showstoppers, Austentatious, Comedy Store Players) as well as improv groups that have broken out into other theatre (The Mischief in the west end and broadway).

We have developed a glorious melting pot of styles, thanks to our own traditions and the benefits of being geographically near to European community and linguistically near to improv centers hundreds or thousands of miles away. Let’s keep being brave and experimental and non-exclusive.

backposting

I haven’t posted on here for ages – the weekly update was fun for a while but has proved a little counterproductive, as I started to feel obliged to deliver a range of different sections each week, like an editor of a magazine, and not just post an idea or thought when it suited.

However I have bulked out the blog considerably, but invisibly: I’ve collected all my google plus posts of any value and posted them here, before the platform collapses (imminently). They all have their original dates so are buried in the archives but if you just search [g+ backpost] or click here you can check them all out.

Retrospective on Murakami improvisation

On the “social murdiers”, someone asked me about our Haruki Murakami improv format, and I’m reprinting it here to keep.

The format was the brainchild of Susan Harrison. Our group Storybag had  been working on non-genre narrative for a couple of years and wanted a genre that would improve our skills but also complement the philosophy of narrative work we had settled on, which avoided skeleton structures and mandatory beats and focused on following what felt important from the story so far.

Murakami was a neat fit because his work blossoms with tropes and a particular atmosphere but doesn’t live or die on its particular structure (an aficionado might well be able to identify one, but it didn’t seem to us the primary thing offered by his writing, which is elliptic and avoids clear endings).

What tropes? He loves riffing on the Beatles or jazz culture, on the best way to make a broth and the contours of the city. He dives into details and gives life to them. So we tried to get better at that quotidian specificity. To avoid a vomit of bland detail we practiced reading expository sections of the books and improvising from there, allowing us to internalise some of Murakami’s voice and the flavour of his enthusiasm for these details.

We looked at highly fantastical characters and the way in which Murakami was efficient in allowing such characters to encounter the protagonist. Generally their fantastical nature is recognised but accepted, rather than denied or held in extended disbelief. This means such encounters are often calm and curious, and to reach there we had to overwrite an old skill developed to respond to weird situations, the classic “game of the scene” approach of calling things out and being a resistant voice of reason. Instead, we would try and allow ourselves to get swept along while still telegraphing some of the strangeness. A muted Alice in Wonderland, perhaps.

Another trope found within such encounters is that the fantastical character often has access to things intimate to the protagonist – knowing the other person’s thoughts or history or having habits that parallel something from their backstory – that aren’t explained at the time. There are a couple of excellent improv skills that align with that well: making thing personal, and jumping (making a step forward) before justifying (worrying if it makes sense). So we just had to identify the relevance of these skills and start to explicitly use them.

There was lots of other stuff: playing strange characters in relation to each other apart from the protagonist’s normal world, storytelling skills, other tropes like talking animals. Our musician had recently bought a Kaoss Machine:

…. so we were working a lot with samples and atmospheric background sounds that added a lot.

In a sense the shows were Murakami reimagined or digested and dreamt, rather than faithfully reproducing something that would have felt as thorough as the novels would have. I much prefer this approach to improvising work, compared to distilling the core path and trying to follow it show after show, but I don’t know whether a Murakami fan would have prefered a Murakami by numbers… it’s an open question whether that is even possible, mind you.