A note to materialist reductionists:

The claim that I am not alive, that I am purely mechanistic, is not one I am interested in entertaining. I know about the many philosophers and scientists have devoted their considerable minds and motivation to constructing edifices that argue that position, but people have built intellectual edifices in support of a great many things. Must I dedicate my life to fully mastering a particular line of thinking, just to be allowed to believe what the majority of the world now, and most all in human history have done? To me, vitalism is obviously true, and using a set of axioms to argue yourself into perspectives counter to all experience seems like an exhausting game.

Put more elegantly:

Vast realms of experience that had once been central to natural philosophy had become in principle invisible to the new inductive regime. It is possible to measure the discrete physical forces and interactions that compose organisms in terms of mass, momentum, exchanges of energy, and so forth; but life, if it is any kind of principle in addition to or beyond those forces and interactions, with a formal integrity irreducible to mere physical composites, exists on an entirely different ontological plane, inaccessible to those measurements. This also means, of course, that certain dimensions of reality, from the perspective of the new sciences, may have no discernible existence at all. So much of what we know about nature is determined by how we choose to interrogate it. Understanding is so often the ward of method, and every method begins from certain presuppositions about what we should ask and how we should ask it, and those presuppositions in turn determine what answers we can elicit, or even recognize as meaningful. And, of course, our method is inseparable from a metaphysics that we simply unwittingly presume, or presume with only partial awareness. In fact, our metaphysics is often nothing other than our method, mistaken for the truth it is supposed only to help us seek.

David Bentley Hart, on his substack

“the aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life” – William Faulkner



Couple of podcast episodes I was on

The sentimental trash that is Borat Subsequent Movie Film.

The “Start as a loser who wins matches and end as a winner who loses them” paradox that is Rocky.

Not yet for public consumption yet but had a fun chat with Jay, and further to that, here’s an interesting article on Free Kriegspiel, and also one on Arnold Rimmer’s swimming certificates. If you can join the dots between them, you are swimming in the same waters we are!


‘(God)…. is indeed good, but certainly not white’ (Quomodo Substantia)
‘who can say there is any person of whiteness or blackness or size’. – both Boethius (from @jmilbank3)

“To have any opinion, one must overlook something.” Charles Fort. Similarly, “to select is to distort” Marshall Mcluhan (lots of juicy stuff at that link!)


The Memory War. This is a long but really important article. I covered an angle on this back in 2016 and spoke to Chris Brewin, who is interviewed in the present article, about it. It’s frustrating, the key figure Elizabeth Loftus is such a prominent/eminent figure in psychology – one of the key figures in my area of memory research when I was doing my work. And the idea that it’s easy to implant false memories has spread so fully, and -as this article details – has had a massive impact on society. One of many bits that stuck out:

Coan, Loftus’s former student and now a neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has decidedly mixed feelings about the experiment he inadvertently spearheaded. “I’m slow enough on the uptake that it took me a while to realize that the study I was doing was making people who had been sexually abused feel like I was their enemy,” he tells me. “That was completely devastating to me.” Although he has been asked to testify about false memory in countless court cases, Coan has always refused. He just doesn’t think the mall study is sufficiently relevant. In her excitement, he thinks, Loftus may have “mischaracterized” what started out as an undergraduate assignment for extra credit.

“I got five points,” Coan says. “Five points and decades of grief.”

This should happen, not just in Wales but all over: Growing food: Call to give vegetable growers public cash

As much for the criticism as for the song itself, this:

Summer Nights (1986): For the first 15 seconds, Eddie (performing alone) sounds like a precocious adolescent trying to figure out an unfamiliar song for the very first time, maybe even reading the sheet music and glancing at his finger placement. He’s then rudely interrupted by Hagar, who grunts the word “Uh.” By magic, Eddie can now rip all the riffs into ribbons, which he proceeds to do. Two minutes later, the astoundingly dumb lyrics are airlifted by the vibe and taken to a hospital in Malibu.

“Summer Nights” – taken from Best Van Halen songs

Some make-em-up thoughts

# 1

Online I see a lot of conversations about getting culture wrong in roleplaying games and to some extent in improv. These are conversations worth having!

However there is a commonplace mode of playing in improvisation that treats mistakes/ignorance as establishing a useful rule about the character or the world.

Eg if I try and butter Alexa up to do something, then I may be establishing something about my character. But I might be establishing that in this world, you have to treat Alexa nice to get stuff. Which of the two decides on how the cast rolls with it. One thing we don’t do is cancel the scene because it diverts from how the world* works. Rather, we get to use that difference to fork into a parallel reality for exploration.

All I’m pointing out here is that ‘getting stuff wrong’ when creating isn’t itself a bug necessarily, it can be a feature. If the direction you get stuff wrong is derogatory, or the way it’s played with makes it so, then that’s a problem. But a degree of drift from reality, dealt with sensitively, can open up new takes and help us look at things with fresh eyes – not just in the dominant culture which we accept is ripe for remix, but in others too.


# 2

In improv, I’m basically interested in particulars and universals.

I love exploring uniqueness: eg a show where we identified a dragon had a BnB, and my knight felt conflicted because he was up for killing a dragon, but hadn’t planned on murdering a landlord (clearly not a true leftist). Drilling down into things that are so totally of themselves, unique situations and reactions.

And I love exploring the human universals: anxiety, suffering, love, joy. Death, birth, estrangement, connection. Common recognition of our human predicament.

Very often, we find the universal simply through exploring the details – a great scene or show will involve both

I’m least interested in exploring generalities: “middle class be like…”. It appears to do the same thing generating details which are often colourful and specific and marshalling them to explore something wider, but it commits a falsehood, as it claims “these specifics are general (false) and therefore we can draw this conclusion about many people through that generalisation”.

Contrast that with “these details are only true here, now, but by examining it we can find everything for everyone.”

# 3

On an improv forum I frequent we were asked “Instead of thinking we are sharing slices of a finite pie, what is a better metaphor that helps you?”

I answered “we are growing a garden” and got asked to unpack: I think that rather than being in this world (or a given enterprise like improvisation) being like trying to slice up a pie, it is more like growing a garden.

  • It’s like growing a garden in that bringing yourself to it and engaging with it makes things flourish, and helps there to be more there than there was before.
  • It’s like a garden because as you pay attention to it, you see more things that could be done, more challenges and possibilities. It has more facets, and the more you look the more you see it.
  • It’s unlike a pie in all these ways – it is not used up by you engaging with it, it is not used for a single purpose.

Improvising Mathematics

So, aways back I wrote with Edmund Harriss an article for Arts Professional about improvisation in maths communication. I didn’t get paid but it got the information out there, which was good. Since then they have paywalled it. Since I have a draft of it, I decided to put it here.

In 2011, the psychologist and improviser Alex Fradera had been exploring how the collaborative theatre and play techniques he used onstage could speak to the demands he had experienced as a practising scientist.  Meanwhile Professor Edmund Harriss was pondering how to explore communication and community with his 2012 Honours Maths class at the University of Arkansas. Discovering our shared interest, we set out on an experiment between disciplines and fields. Here is our field report from that ongoing experiment.

The open exchange of ideas invigorates any field and heightens its influence on the world. But maths is solitary, jargon-heavy, and involves challenging concepts, making communication outside of narrow subdomains tricky. Furthermore, there is little incentive to widen your audience: better to appeal upwards than outwards for your career… besides, do I really want everyone to understand the work I’m doing – what if they think it’s obvious? These concerns can be real anxieties for mathematicians and scientists early in their career.

This project aims to explore how to provide the next generation of mathematicians with a more flexible, resilient and expansive mindset. We want a more functional maths community through greater cohesion, communication and openness, and for individuals to flourish through improving skills and developing a healthy attitude towards success and collaboration.

Formally, the course requires students to develop an explanation of mathematical concepts using a wide range of skills, writing including images (preferably photographs of physical models) and presentation using words and props. This basic structure allowed us to offer a number of activities and processes to explore our key themes.

To practice what we preach, we  built student communication and collaboration right into the course. The class description was extensive and made it clear that “we’re looking to do a little more than usual”, focusing on sharing and communication as much as understanding. The course took a prototyping approach, with a byword of “test, learn and adapt”, welcoming student input, both through informal means and scheduled check-ins, and using this to evolve course content and priorities.

We also suggested to the students that they would get more from the course if they engaged with it with certain qualities in mind:

  • Forgiving – tolerance for mistakes
  • Playful – up for experimentation and taking risks
  • Honest – having standards and sharing when something doesn’t work
  • Intimate – know each other better, to connect and share.

Students were initially formed into buddy pairs: more than study partners, buddies observed each other during presentations, providing feedback and even presented each others material. New pairings were formed after the first formal check-in, making use of what students had realised they needed and could offer to each other.

Additionally, we introduced a range of focused but playful course activities. These were adapted from exercises used in improvisational theatre, notably games developed by Keith Johnstone and his Loose Moose Theatre in Canada (Alex has studied at the Moose and with Keith). For example, a student would present on a simple topic while their audience played the “Beep beep game”, responding whenever they felt personally neglected by sending vocal signals to the presenter until they had been included again. Another game asked the student to present on their own work while incorporating arbitrary words flung at them by the audience. A separate session organised a ‘chat show’ where students, in-character, tested out beliefs about communication. The class ran a ‘maths marketplace’ to pitch projects for others to run, discovering how to spark audience interest. In coming weeks students will experiment with presentation style by explicitly borrowing from their buddy, examining how taking on a new cadence or physicality may assist them. They will also do so with imaginary characters or archetypes: how does rehearsing your talk as a priestess generate new possibilities?

Following a maths and science education route carries the risk of winnowing away habits of thought that are variously described as right brain, rich, or mythocentric thinking. (The arts are not immune, it’s just that the imbalance tends to flow the other way!) So these unfamiliar activities, are an opportunity to revisit different ways of being, with self, other and the world. The students learn skills – how to  focus on audience needs, flexibility in the face of unexpected twists and turns – but also stretch their comfort zones and challenging the idea that success depends on everything going exactly to plan.

Our biggest challenges? Ensuring that the improvisational content genuinely does complement the maths context of the course was crucial, and led to many long skype calls in the months before launch. Also, cross-ocean collaboration leaves Edmund the only facilitator in the room, with Alex offering interstitial support (game ideas and brainstorming) and dropping in to sessions via skype. So it can be tricky to sense the atmosphere in the room and knowing when a stretching exercise has spilled over into simply un-fun. Making a safe space for feedback has been essential. Also we will doubtless understand more where things went wrong through appraisals at the course end!

Edmund can also be found at @gelada http://maxwelldemon.com

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.


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.


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.