A friend of mine (+Tom Stafford) just tweeted this article which came out a little while back. It’s excellent. Some excerpts:

The fabric of social life is now a problem that is addressed within the rubric of health policy, and there is something a little sad about that. Loneliness now appears as an objective problem, but only because it shows up in the physical brain and body, with calculable costs for governments and health insurers. Generosity and gratitude are urged upon people by positive psychologists, but mainly to alleviate their own mental health problems and private misery. And friendship ties within poor inner-city neighbourhoods have become a topic of government concern, but only to the extent that they mediate epidemics of bad nutrition and costly inactivity.

The irony is that, for all the talk of giving and sharing, this is potentially an even more egocentric worldview than that associated with the market. The cornerstone of orthodox economics, dating back to Adam Smith, is that self-interest in the marketplace is ultimately beneficial for society. The era of social optimisation looks set to stand this claim upside down: being social in your everyday life is worth it, because it will ultimately deliver benefits back to you. The trouble is that our appetites for this new commodity can spiral out of control.

What we witness, in the case of a social media addict, is only the more pathological element of a society that cannot conceive of relationships except in terms of the psychological pleasures that they produce. The person whose fingers twitch to check their Facebook page when they are supposed to be listening to their friend over a meal is a victim of a philosophy in which other people are only there to please, satisfy and affirm an individual ego from one moment to the next. This inevitably leads to vicious circles: once a social bond is stripped down to this impoverished psychological level, it becomes harder and harder to find the satisfaction that one wants. Viewing other people as instruments for one’s own pleasure represents a denial of the core ethical and emotional truths of friendship, love and generosity.

One grave shortcoming of this egocentric idea of the social is that none (or at least, vanishingly few) of us can ever constantly be the centre of attention, receiving praise. And so it also proves with Facebook. As an endless stream of exaggerated displays of positivity or success, Facebook often serves to make people feel worse about themselves and their own lives.

What remains unquestioned by such efforts to redesign social networks for greater wellbeing is the underlying logic, which implies that relationships are there to be created, invested in and – potentially – abandoned, in pursuit of individual optimisation. The darker implication of strategically pursuing positive emotion via relationships is that the relationship is only as good as the psychic value that it delivers. “Friend rosters” may need to be “balanced”, if it turns out that one’s friends are not spreading enough pleasure or happiness.

How friendship became the tool of the powerful

wrong systems [g+ backpost]

Something +Paul Beakley said about genre in rpgs made me think:

People ask questions like: What system could I use to play Silent Hill?

One answer is ‘anything the GM (or players) is familiar with and won’t get in the way’ – a solution often offered by both traditional and DIY circles. ‘Anything’ in this case tends to exclude very focused games

Another answer is ‘this specific game, geared to closely emulate this genre or a cousin’ – the quintessential suggestion based on the System Matters philosophy that came out of the Forge

Another answer is ‘make a specific game that tackles exactly what you like about Silent Hill’ – an approach endorsed by both DIY and SM people, with the DIY people typically making the game their own in play, and the SM people doing it up front.

There’s another option that I think actually happens quite a lot, but isn’t one of the canonical suggestions:

Used a focused game that was NOT designed to emulate that experience, or one like it. Play a romance and dating game using Dread. Use Monsterhearts to explore life in an upbeat Valley startup. Play breaking the ice to recreate Ridley Scott’s The Duellists – too easy? Ok, Spielberg’s Duel.

Don’t think too hard about what works (beyond practical stuff like player numbers, sessions, etc) and see what new experience you produce by this. #gamingmishmash

As much as gay men have faced the brunt of homophobic violence, straight men have been banished to a desert of physical isolation by these same homophobic fanatics who police lesbians and gays in our society.

Films for Action

Excellent article. I have a few male friendships in which we’ve deconditioned ourselves and enjoy extended touch, hand-holding, stroking. Even so, it takes reminding, especially as we see each other infrequently, that this is our preferred state of affairs and avoid reverting back to the dominant talking-heads, no-touching culture.

john grey on progress [g+ backpost]

Obeying the same need for meaning, modern thinkers look to numbers for signs that show the emergence of a world founded on rational and moral principles. They believe that improvement in ethics and politics is incremental and accretive: one advance is followed by another in a process that stabilises and strengthens the advances that have already taken place. Now and then regress may occur, but when this happens it does so against a background in which the greater part of what has been achieved so far does not pass away. Slowly, over time, the world is becoming a better place.

The ancient world, along with all the major religions and pre-modern philosophies, had a different and truer view. Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible.

Unable to tolerate the prospect that the cycles of conflict will continue, many are anxious to find continuing improvement in the human lot. Who can fail to sympathise with them? Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt, it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers. How else can they find meaning in their lives?


A dreaming phoenix


Last week, I reflected about the fun I’ve been having recently with Storybag. Another delight in late 2014, appearing like a phoenix from the flames, was The Dreaming.

The Dreaming was born back in 2012 – briefly called Carnosexual before we thought better of it. I formed the team, coached and occasionally played when our numbers demanded. And here I have to make an aside, if you’ll bear with me. I’ve noticed that improv teams, like many groups of people outside of formal structures, can struggle with naming and recognising ownership and authority, often preferring to promote a consensual vibe and muddling through when it comes to crucial decisions or matters of vision. (I think these tendencies are magnified twice: once by the conflict-avoidant, passive aggression of the English middle class, and the other by training that can be [mis]characterised as prizing consensus over standing up and playing your part.) This finger points at no-one more-so than me, which is why I’m owning up, explicitly, to authoring the group into existence, and shepherding it forward according to my goals. It was my baby, even if its manifestation was utterly determined by the great players I was lucky enough to touch and be touched by. In the end, this iteration burned bright – a slew of really fun gigs –  before real life and geography dispersed us.

This September I found myself sharing a few days with founding members John Agapiou and Clare Kerrison at the Maydays Impro Comedy Festival at Osho Leela in Dorset, and the idea came up: why not get the band back together? So, with the help of superb musician and Mayday Joe Samuel, we did. And then we did it again in Cambridge, and – back with Joe again – in Brighton at the end of the year. So, it’s kind of a thing now.

And you know what? I wouldn’t call it my thing.

I formed the group with a simple and selfish agenda of giving my friends new to London a forum to play in. As conditions have changed – my buddy Brandon is back in the US, and John is plenty busy on his own terms – that need simply doesn’t exist anymore.

On top of that, in 2012, I had come back from the Improv Olympic with a clear picture of pursuing  long-form highly organic sound-and motion touchy-feely morphy stuff – what the Dreaming are all about. During the hiatus, I’ve become more focused on other components of improv: on slower, longer scenes, unearthing character, that sort of thing. It’s not that I don’t rate the morphing abstract stuff, it’s just that the desire to do it has been sitting quietly, waiting to be woken up. And it got woken up loud, by John and Clare, with John in particular driving our rehearsals and revealing to us something hidden inside our work together: that we had to embrace looking like pretentious arseholes to get close to doing the kind of work that excited us.

I am totally invested in what I get to do with Clare, John and Joe. But it’s important to recognise that this is not my thing anymore – my thing lived its mayfly life and was done. From the bones of that we’ve boiled up a new soup. New philosophy, new direction of energy. It feels good to recognise how that can happen, the phoenix, the new thing directly from the old thing, wearing its skin, but new again.

The Murak-army


Yesterday I got back together with my improv family Storybag to rehearse our latest show, an improvised play based around the themes of Haruki Murakami’s novels.

Storybag was a project that took time to come together. Perhaps rare among improvisers nowadays, who aim to get as much stage time as possible from the off, we spent nearly a year rehearsing together to find our groove, form a group mind and develop trust before asking audiences to come and see it.

We did a string of shows, a few being some of my favourite things to have done on stage. But over 2014 it began to feel less inspired. As I wrote about in the past, in the absence of genre, our stories all began to accrue that particular impro-story genre. We needed a shot in the arm, which we got last September when Sue (Harrison) proposed Murakami. Not only our first genre show but a genre which is specific, challenging and inspiring to our own perspectives. As Sue is a Murakami superfan she’s been able to provide clear artistic direction from the off, and as we immerse ourselves in the work, our group mind reattunes itself around the landmarks and milestones that demarcate this world.


I’m particularly happy that Dylan (Buckle), our musical performer, has leapt on the opportunities and challenges that Murakami brings, from a forensic interest in Western music styles from jazz to rock and even classical, to the tonal demands of the work, which he’s deftly exploring using his Kaosmaschine (I don’t know either, but it’s cool piece of kit).

Our debut in December was a real delight; we played on the tips of our toes, toppling into characters that stretched us and exploring mood and emotion. We’ll be kicking into gear with the show in 2015, and excited about where it can bring us. If you’re in London on the 9th March, we’ll be bringing Murakami to the wonderful Duck Duck Goose night.

gatekeepers [g+ backpost]

I’m seeing a lot of conversations about production of art and games that uses the term gatekeeping, eg when someone gives an opinion that one way of doing things is less good than another. It’s making me really question the worth of the term.

Gatekeeper seemed like a really good phrase to use in a 20th century context where a person – curator, editor, etc – could literally say ‘no you can’t put this stuff in’, just like a person keeping a gate.

But the 21st century is a lot less like that, and there are instead plenty of other ways for people’s work not to get a fair shake. In practice, unless you are trying to get your paintings into the MoMA, you don’t need to climb into institutions past gates, you need eyeballs in a world of finite attention. And people who have influence over this aren’t standing in front of a gate. There is no gate. There is a agora where everyone has little stalls or stands beside them with wares on the floor. Influencers are scowling as they walk past stalls and waving their hands at them saying ‘terrible idea! The very idea of this is disgusting!’ Or maybe selling maps of the souk that mark certain stalls as all being Powered by the Acropolis, which we can all agree could seem reason enough to buy there first. Or alternatively marching towards a far section of the agora with a flag held high saying ‘follow me to the innovative stuff – Acropolis stuff is very derivative, you know!’

A shopper interacting with any of these things is going to have their hour in the agora influenced, towards some stalls and away from others.

I think the word gatekeeper makes out that there is one kind of Bad influence which is someone using their reputation to shape our flow of attention and focus, and then the other kinds are all good. I’m not sure we can say that, I think that all these kinds of influence inevitably advantage some people at the expense of others, and without data – eg demonstrating what we in the field of work psychology call ‘Adverse Impact‘ – it’s hard to say that the maps are doing that in the Good Way and the flag guy in the Bad way.

It’s all just influencers guiding shoppers and walkers back and forth, shaping the time they have to stroll in the agora.

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness. Whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. No account of the universe in its totality can be final that leaves these disregarded. How to regard them is the question – for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness.

William James, one of psychology’s founding fathers, ruminating on his experiences with hallucinogenics. Quoted by Prof David Nutt in The Psychologist.

Don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed. You need to make sure the audience is the most important person in the room.

Yo Yo Ma, interview with On Being