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.


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.

|014| Season shifting

This week as it was to me

Was interviewed for a new role in the NHS, permanent not temporary. Nailed it. Have been on the edge of getting sick this weekend but managed to push it back. Had a nice wander through some heritage buildings yesterday and watched the Great North Run on TV this morning, toying with doing it next year.

Some relationship deep work/quality time as it moves from just knowing each other to figuring out where things are going. 

Also had a doctor’s appointment to sort out the long-running chronic condition.

Things are cooling, and the wind in from the north sea can be truly chilling even this far from winter. Still, my favourite time of year.

No photos this week!


 Put together artists contracts, risk assessments and sundry for improv stuff.

Art and improv

Started teaching new class this week. Fun to be back, but being in full employment really dictates that I get things done much more efficiently – I guess that’s good?


Getting into the new series of Better Call Saul. It’s all about Kim for me, to be honest, and Jimmy to an extent: the machinations of the cartels and Mike’s plays, as neat as they are, don’t really hold my attention – although Nacho is a compelling figure within a moral bind.

And I’m loving everything from ContraPoints. Check out the incels content if you have the stomach for it; it is illuminating.

Branches outward

Academic Activists Send a Published Paper Down the Memory Hole

An entirely different study, but a similar theme: Brown’s failure to defend Lisa Littman

Interesting just because I knew almost nothing about the guy: Who Really Is John McDonnell?

A witch hunt or a quest for justice: An insider’s perspective on disgraced academic Avital Ronell

Interesting to see an Archon being unmasked, but makes for some bleak reading…

The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures. Professor Ronell was unusually skilled at manipulating these.

At a public event she labeled me an anti-Semite. Not that she actually believed this smear. But the accusation, once uttered, was not easy to unhear, and since it fit into her political calculations, she had no scruples deploying it. Even if no one believed the charge, it would still have the desired effect for her. Semper aliquid haeret, as the Romans used to say: Something always sticks.

The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism….she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.

Before students were allowed to practice  criticism, they had to learn to subject themselves to authority….Whoever wants to whitewash the misconduct of Avital Ronell does so either out of ignorance or  is eager to make a contribution to this undeclared war. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty, and these alternative facts do a disservice to the cause of women. The critique of asymmetrical power structures in universities, which the case of Avital Ronell would allow, will be prevented by the ranks now closing around her.  Avital Ronell’s supporters will ensure that existing power structures remain in place.

Thinking Through

A couple of weeks ago, Jacob Rees Mogg responded to warnings from the Treasury regarding Brexit with a saying: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”

People may have noticed that in current times, politicians have arisen with a real taste for arresting, colourful and often unpleasant language. Part of this, perhaps, is a backlash against the bland managerialism that in my country was associated with the long Blairite years. (“Finally, someone tells it like they see it!”) But much of the language is much more than bluntness, and I think the Rees Mogg quote is a good example. It seems, rather, designed to stick in our minds, to take our associations with a person or organisation and latch onto them vivid emotional, and often disgust-tinted imagery. As George Lakoff has emphasised, politics in large part is about activating people through language, and the right has developed a strong knack at this. (There is a discussion about how the left has also annexed language for its own terms, but this tends to centre more around neologism and limiting language, rather than launching emotional depth charges.)

The approach pays off, mainly because we don’t challenge it – and that’s partly because the technique counterstrikes when attacked. When we call it out we simply call attention to the association that the opposition wants more attention for. The logical frame – “this vomit and Person X association is out of line and should not be considered acceptable” soon rubs away, leaving “vomit and Person X”, just as desired. One way to look at this is that “vomit and Person X” may be intended as an antimeme (definition here, warning, this is a NSFW site run by someone who seems problematic but has some useful conceptual tools) – a meme designed such that people who hate it turn into useful idiots who devote energy to spreading it.

Still, if the tactic is not snuffed, it will continue to be used. So this is me thinking through whether it can be reverse ju-jitsu’d. This is how I would like a journalist to try and handle it.

“We have in the studio Jacob Rees Mogg, who was recently critical of the treasury. Mr Rees Mogg, you used arresting language to do so, you said: ‘As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly’ Why?”

Standard response, R-M controls the conversation, and strengthens the association. That’s the inevitable cost of going there.

But Mr Rees Mogg, you must recognise that the idea of dog vomit provokes strong negative reactions in people, and when you – the MP Jacob Rees Mogg, play with this concept of dog vomit, you are bringing some very unpleasant associations into public discourse.

R-M has a bit of a choice – he could give a standard retort about “leavers”, maybe with a new (although likely defused) metaphor, or just standard language. Alternatively he could double down on the claim, but I think he would be wary of it by now, as it would seem to validate the claim that he is preoccupied with it. It doesn’t matter anyway. You don’t drop the topic.

“I understand that you may say [x,y]. But the issue is about your use of dog vomit, Mr Rees Mogg. You may recognise, or not, that simply associating disgusting vivid imagery with people or entities can leave lasting impressions. Do you disagree?

R-M might say this is ridiculous or irrelevant at this stage.

“But this is about our political discourse, which I want to see healthy. You see, Jacob Rees Mogg, those who play with dog vomit, as you seem happy to do, can find that the contaminating effects also spread to you. And I’m suggesting that it would be better for you, Mr Mogg, to stay away from the dog vomit.”

Maybe as a bonus, a cut back to the studio:

“That was Tony Smith, discussing Jacob Rees Mogg… and dog vomit.”

“Most people want to keep away from that stuff….”

Let them know we know what they are doing and then punish them for doing it by hoisting them on their petard, and their petard only; minimal necessary violence done to the body democratic.

|013| Summer drifting

This week month as it was to me

It’s alread a clumsy subheading so I’m not fussed that I’ve piggled it further. Still, a month. Wow.

In this month, I have mainly been doing everything, it seems. 

Among other things, I turned 40.

Birthday printable marshmallows.

On the day, I wandered the coast around St Mary’s Island while listening to Hildegard of Bingen. I took some photos. I live in a beautiful part of the world.

I also had guests from the US, so we did some exploring together including Alnwick castle (take 2) and hitting the fish shack in Amble. I am missing some photos atm. But hey, I got one of a seal, so.

I also powered on with the job. I’m enjoying working in the NHS a lot and think I’m doing good.

This weekend the lady and I went to the Dilston Physic Garden which is a herbalist’s delight. Complete with labyrinth and sculpture garden. 

Art and Improv

The American visit led to a terrific show and class. Kevin is a loveable and hilarious guy who slotted into our house format without any effort. We had a cool experimental middle section and then me K and John (also visiting) did some terrific fun organic improvisation. Class was busting at the seams, both with participants and content and laughter. Yay!

Two of my favourite dum-dums

Also Will and I went down to Edinburgh festival and steeped ourselves in the goodness. Drove up mid-morning Saturday, down again after midnight on Sunday, after seeing 14 shows. Lots of people doing well that I knew from the clown/improv world; we were one seat shy of getting to see Jordan do what he does. John Henry put on a show that was a great end to our festival. I would pay for a chapbook of poetry that simply contained his ode to Die Hard, which sends prickles up the spine. Also, his take on Thomas the Tank Engine chimes with mine and Alan Chapman’s, namely that it’s a horrible little set-up that shouldn’t be anywhere near kids.

Other highlights were Vulvarine, The Half and Famous Puppet Death Scenes.

Branches outward

In upstate New York, a DMT-inspired psychedelic temple rises

And of course, it’s Alex and Allyson Gray. I get their newsletter – had one of their posters up on my wall in Germany – and should pull up Alex’s audio book on the creative process, it had some good stuff in it. Alex is best known in my circles for contributing art to Tool’s album Lateralus.

The gang at Trust which I visited in February are starting to roll out videos. I haven’t had a chance to watch this yet so it’s as much a placeholder for me as anything. Bound to be interesting though. Benjamin H. Bratton on ideologies beyond the human

Hulbert and Anderson found that while those in the high and low trauma groups were equally good at learning the initial word associations, those in the high trauma group showed superior performance on the subsequent “No Think” trials, indicating they had a “robust ability” to forget the specific response words when required to do so. This held for both neutral and negative words, “suggesting that this effect reflects a generalised skill at suppression, regardless of valence,” the researchers write. 

For some, experiencing trauma may act as a form of cognitive training that increases their mental control

Trauma is looking like it may be a thing that I apply a lot of my attention to going forward, so I am all for people sending me anything to look at that speaks to it.


Everything from before – need to switch to finishing mode before the year escapes me entirely. Plus Adrian Wells’ Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders which is a firm ride into CBT territory. I come into this field without a huge regard for CBT but reading Wells’ take there is a lot to agree with. Behavioural experiments, reframing, exploring and bottoming out assumptions, and making sure everything is in the service of addressing the misunderstandings being made puts it closer to the Socratic tradition I am generally into.

 Also Take it Easy, an easy improv book that I generally agree with but as a consequence isn’t adding much to my picture.

|012| Day jobbing

This week as it was to me

Work has been a dominating feature – so much so that I’ve struggled to blog on top of it. All going well, delivering what I need to quickly and getting more interesting activities on the back of it. I like the people I work with, I like the ethos in the organisation, I can also see how cuts and efficiency-restructure takes its toll, and is exceptionally complex in a health organisation with so many stakeholders and such high stakes.

I bought a bike this week – a single-speed hybrid recycled bike. Haven’t had a chance to put it really through its paces yet.

And I’ve been busy on weekends. Two weeks back was a trip to Kielder water, the massive reservoir in the Northeast. Camped among chickens and bemused sheep.

Just spent a nice weekend in Edinburgh, teaching mask improv and enjoying a little time in that most lovely of cities.


Workwise I’m trying to formalise a pipeline and process for a psychoeducation group in the city, so thinking about referral processes, communications, tracking etc. Also outside of the day job trying out what could be a semi-regular gig writing some think-pieces on workplace psych.

Art and improv

Had a great time in Ed, as mentioned. One-day workshop with a cosy group, lots of discoveries with the masks.

We found a scene centred around adoption/fostering where the breaking of boundaries was mediated through a teddy and it was heartbreaking.

Connections and thanks

Thanks to new friend Tom for putting us up in Edinburgh.

Last week checked out singing pals as part of the Northern Electric Festival. They did weird and great things.

Had a lovely meetup with the improv gang and ate great curry (keralan squid!) and laughed together for an evening.


I saw First Reformed this weekend and it knocked me backwards. Slow burn, intense and upsetting – but not gratuitously, because it deals our environmental crises, and what it looks and feels like when we stop turning away from them.

This looks interesting: Blot, a blogging platform with no interface, just files uploaded to a dropbox folder.

Branches outward

Fuck you, I’m not a Millenial (h/t Jay)

I will one day have to explain to my children that their father once ran a CD store, and then I’ll have to explain what in the hell a CD was, and I won’t be able to help bringing up MiniDiscs in the process. They will pat me patronizingly on the head, certain that I am showing the first signs of dementia, and ask if the robot maid is done doing their laundry yet.

Ideas in cars, honking

Tom Waits on the creative process:

“Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don’t care if they lose it; they’ll just make another one.” This openness is what every artist needs. Be ready to receive the inspiration when it comes; be ready to let it go when it vanishes. He believes that if a song “really wants to be written down, it’ll stick in my head. If it wasn’t interesting enough for me to remember it, well, it can just move along and go get in someone else’s song.” “Some songs,” he has learned, “don’t want to be recorded.” You can’t wrestle with them or you’ll only scare them off more. Trying to capture them sometimes “is trying to trap birds.”

I was a female incel

We have to make sense of our differences and to conduct our interpersonal relationships in a way that is considerate and democratic instead of ignorant and tyrannical. If we turn our backs on our universal human duty of attempting to discern the truth of who we are as men and women, we doom both sides to a nihilistic power game, a Hobbesian nightmare of perpetual inter-gender warfare, replete with righteously indignant groupthink, spiteful denigration of the other side, and a grim fight for dominance characterized by constant victimization one-upmanship. I have experienced the suffering of both sides of this bitter war. Now I’d like to do my part, small though it may be, to bring about some peace through truth.




|011| Work working

This week as it was to me

The main theme of the week was starting my new full-time NHS psychology work. Tiring but rewarding to go back to a standard working week (plus blogging etc… I’m gonna be busy). The teams are really nice.  So far, the worst thing about going back to the grind is the ergonomics. So far I am doing without: natural scrolling, a comfortable keyboard, an ergonomic keyboard layout (I use Colemak at home), a standing desk, and the screens… oh god, the screens. Seemingly Windows 7 also prevents me from using many of the keyboard shortcuts for moving through text I like too. And the only plain text editor is Notepad, which isn’t exactly easy on the eye. I might be able to tweak some stuff but I may need to make my piece with much more.

A Newcastle heat wave is not as hot as elsewhere, but very nice. I had a nice walk around my local park. It’s victorian and has this lovely passage with old copper gas lamps.

Also a barbecue. This cat craved beer.

Hanging out with the lady too which is really nice. Her cat prefers catnip, and catching random critters as gifts. Lots of nice gluten-free baking atm too.

And the city is pretty lovely.


Did some mask-making on the weekend, nicely therapeutic.


Having just joined the NHS, I’m thinking about service and then I chanced upon this article where the first story is about my friend Alex.


Went to see a cool jazz group led by composer and guitarist Gero Schipmann. I love the guitar but am not such a fan of it in jazz, prefer the impact of brass or the eloquence of the piano, but he brought it to interesting places and allowed his group into focus including an excellent sax player.

You can hear some of his stuff here.

Branches outward

Andrew Taggart has been exploring the issue of Total Work.

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.

I don’t always have time to make it through all his newsletters but enjoyed his recent one, which included a reflection on how people are responding to the effort:

Some believe that I’m only arguing against overwork and that I’m calling for “work-life balance.” That was how the story got picked up after a Quartz piece I wrote (see this MSN news piece). In truth, I’m trying to understand, at the very least, how work came to be sacrosanct, especially given its long track record as something contemptible (ancient Greece) and as necessary evil (medieval Europe).


I just got Butler’s Lives of the Saints in the post, and a friend returned Street Reclaiming to me (Mr Engwitch) and Jan Gehl’s Cities for People. I’m still on Lachman though.

Thinking through

(Rough and ready first-pass stuff here)

Speaking of Lachman, I’m reminded of how the current political divide – nay, chasm – seems to map in the public space with the right claiming “rationality” and left “feelings/subjectivity” – scientific method versus critical theory, for example. Currently, the book is exploring Goethe and his attempt to reject these as two binaries and thread the needle between them. Goethe is an interesting character as he was the seed of romanticism, which became known for emotional outpouring and a preoccupation with feeling, and was at the same time keenly interested in science and the material world (he discovered, for instance, the intermaxillary bone in humans, whose absence was thought to indicate the separateness of our species from others; Darwin credited this discovery as a key step on the path to figuring out evolution).

However, Goethe intended to approach the natural world with the instincts of the poet. One way in which you could imagine doing so would be to bring whatever personal feeling happened to be manifesting within you and smudging it all over the phenomena – so one day it could be  oh, cold, grave tree! So imposing and judgmental, you cast your eyes on me but on another oh tree, you are my calm friend, etc. This would be layering feelings and subjectivity over what is nowadays considered territory for the rational, outer-viewing mind. In such a tradition, any interpretation we want to bring to bear would be valid, as long as we feel it when we apply it. This is the postmodern approach of suggesting everything is a text and every text can be read in any number of ways, with either all being equally correct, or with the correctness shaped only by its possible political impact, making the readings ultimately instrumental rather than true in themselves.

But this wasn’t what Goethe was about at all. He didn’t consider the natural world a canvas for his subjectiveness, with any take equally correct. He took it seriously that his job was to try and see the insides of a thing – a plant, or a place – as they really were, using his imaginative sense to “see ideas”. He wasn’t seeking to interpret the tree, he was seeking to actually understand it, using imagery called forth by the presence of the tree and his patience to join with it.

One of the reasons I’m interested in this is because of the old improv, where we layer identities onto empty stages and plainly dressed players using mental imagery, and at its best try to carve out a reality that isn’t there but also is. I personally feel like there is at least two activities in improv, one being making decisions to interpret and shape what you present to an audience in an instrumental way (twist this here to make this funny, introduce this theme to be dramatic), and another where you are allowing whatever is there to breathe and manifest. To see an idea. As an idealist, an idea is no trivial thing. Judgments and beliefs are cheap, but ideas are bigger than us.