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Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

Review of Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

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Title: Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

Author: Kristie Macrakis

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-300-17925-5

Length: 392

Price: $27.50

Rating: 91%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

 

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies, a book by Christie Macrakis, provides an interesting look into the history of invisible ink and other forms of secret writing. Much has been written about cryptography, including such classics as David Kahn’s The Codebreakers and Bruce Schneier’s Applied Cryptography, but relatively little had been published about invisible writing.

Prof. Macrakis is a professor of history, technology, and society at Georgia Tech. She’s written a number of other books on espionage-related topics, so it makes sense that she would turn her attention to invisible writing.

More Complicated than You’d Think

The problem with this sort of book is that everyone thinks invisible ink is a simple topic. Everyone who has ever owned a beginning magic book or a chemistry set knows that you can use lemon juice and a toothpick to inscribe a message on a piece of paper that only appears when the paper is heated over a flame or a lightbulb. For many years, the science of invisible writing was in fact limited to a number of easily obtained substances and the use of heat or simple developing fluids that reacted with the ink.

The study of natural magic, instituted in the Middle Ages and a precursor to the Scientific Revolution, led to number of discoveries that were of use to the prisoners, lovers, and spies named in the book’s title. During the late 16th century, the partisans fighting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and even Queen Mary herself, used invisible ink in their attempts to communicate secretly with their supporters.

Skipping forward a few centuries, invisible ink played a huge role in every war from the American Revolution to World War II and beyond into the Cold War. The scope and breadth of mail censorship and interception, all with the goal of discovering both indiscreet and discreet communications, was staggering. Even with the tens of thousands of letters going through the British Imperial Censorship office in Bermuda and the American stations in Miami and Puerto Rico, a total of 339 letters with secret writing were intercepted.

After the end of World War II, the Germans instituted a new means of secret communication: the microdot. These tiny circles, which could be hidden in a book as the dot on an “i” or a period, could contain a substantial amount of information for the time. As World War II ground to a close and the Cold War started, microdots played a significant role in covert communication. That’s not to say that invisible ink and secret writing went away. In fact, the author leads off the book with the story of how she came to acquire a carefully hidden East German Stasi formula for invisible ink through an archive request at the German Cold War library collection. It was a story worth waiting for.

Further Considerations

Macrakis covers specific historical periods in each chapter. She states in the introduction that she wrote the book so that anyone could dip into it and read about the time they were interested in. That choice, which is eminently reasonable, means that there is some noticeable repetition when you read the book in one go, but it’s not too distracting.

What I find particularly interesting, in addition to the art and science of the writing itself, are descriptions of the organizations put in place to detect, develop, and exploit information from secret writing. The scope of the mail interception effort during World War II is impressive. Although the author doesn’t make this comparison explicit, I can’t help but wonder what the level of effort would be in relation to current National Security Agency efforts to intercept secret communication.

The last chapter of the main part of the book gives a brief overview of steganography, which is the process of hiding a message within another file. For example, one could use the least significant bits of an image file to encode a message without changing the image’s appearance to the casual observer. Of course there are tools to detect steganographic writing, but experts in the field are extremely reluctant to talk about what they do. That means the chapter on steganography is a bit disappointing, but it’s hard to blame the author for her sources’ lack of forthrightness.

The appendix contains a number of formulas that can be used to create and reveal invisible ink. Some of the substances can be harmful to humans, so creating any of the inks or developing agents would be done strictly at your own risk. I’m glad the publisher didn’t shy away from providing these recipes, though—they’re an important part of the subject’s history and the book would be incomplete without them.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies is a worthwhile book for anyone with an interest in espionage tradecraft or who just thinks that secret writing is a fun and interesting subject. I fall into both camps, so I enjoyed Prof. Macrakis’ work. Recommended.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law

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Title: Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law

Author: Christopher Kuner

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2013

ISBN13: 978-0-19-967461-9

Length: 285

Price: $145.00

Rating: 100%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Privacy law is a difficult subject to approach, let alone master. The United States has a patchwork of data protection laws at the state and federal level, often restricting government access to data that private enterprises may acquire and combine freely. Extending that analysis internationally is exponentially more difficult, due to both different legal approaches to personal data protection and the details of the laws themselves.

A Well-Qualified Author

In Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law, author Christopher Kuner summarizes international privacy law, details the differing approaches taken by various countries, reports on developments in domestic privacy law and international agreements, and offers a framework for making the laws of the various States more interoperable.

Dr. Kuner is very well qualified to take on this analysis. The brief author bio on the inside of the dust jacket notes that, in addition to his position as Senior Of Counsel with the Brussels office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, he is Vice-Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Task Force on Privacy and Personal Data Protection, participates in the work of international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), wrote European Data Protection Law: Corporate Compliance and Regulation, and is editor-in-chief of the journal International Data Privacy Law. Any one of those CV entries would be sufficient to convince me of his expertise—taken as a group they are indeed impressive.

Summary and Background

Kuner begins, as is customary in such works, with a historical synopsis of data privacy laws from the 1970s to the present. Other books, such as the Agre and Rotenberg’s edited volume Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape (1999) and my own Privacy-Enhanced Business (2001), go into significant detail on the development of data privacy laws in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. Kuner, by virtue of his experience in the field, is able to focus his coverage on the aspects of the laws that will most benefit policy makers and legal practitioners.

Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law focuses on European data protection laws, many of which were drafted or modified in response to the EU Data Protection Directive 95/46. European Union laws tend to be the most restrictive, with idiosyncratic laws such as the U.S. Video Privacy Protection Act (passed in response to private investigators accessing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental records) as notable exceptions, so it makes sense to use that regime as the baseline for analysis.

EU laws treat data protection as a fundamental right, on par with constitutional rights in the US. Casting privacy in that light means EU policies must be evaluated against those rights, rather than against the rather more vague protections afforded privacy in the US as a penumbral right implied by certain amendments to the Constitution.

Further Considerations

After his overview of privacy policies, Kuner discusses the types of regulatory systems available, the differences among them, and the role of technology in privacy regulation. He points out, quite correctly, that legislation naming specific technologies will become obsolete almost immediately. On the other hand, individuals and institutions can protect personally identifiable information using privacy-enhancing technologies. For example, in addition to encryption technologies, data collectors could use geolocation sensors to pinpoint their location to identify which laws apply. As he notes, however:

[U]sing geolocation to control access to data can also undermine data protection, since determining the location of users can make them more identifiable. Thus geolocation can be useful in specific cases, but also raises data protection concerns.

Data that has been anonymized, or stripped of links to the individuals whom the data represents, is another tactic to render personally identifiable information safe. The author cites the proposed General Data Protection Regulation of the European Commission, which provides that “the principles of data protection should not apply to data rendered anonymous in such a way that the data subject is no longer identifiable”. Unfortunately, at least from the data protection standpoint, there has been significant progress in data de-anonymization. The mostly true folk wisdom that knowing an individual’s birthdate and postal code allows US data aggregators to correctly identify 70% of individuals is just the tip of a mammoth analytical iceberg. Reprocessing of medical test data, for example, has allowed researchers to link database records to specific individuals with very high accuracy.

Kuner also examines the role of extraterritoriality in data protection law. Certain policies and conventions, including one proposed by the International Chamber of Commerce, require each Party to the agreement to ensure that data transferred to processors outside the Party’s territory in accordance with the originating party’s laws. He notes elsewhere in the book that subsequent transfers to other processors don’t necessarily create a chain of responsibility back to the originating entity, but where responsibility ends, or even attenuates, is an open question.

Data rarely moves between States without crossing intervening jurisdictions. Kuner cites commentary indicating data transiting across the territory of a State doesn’t constitute a transfer, but even there the mechanics of data transmission come into play. Data is often stored on servers for some time as a normal part of transfers, either in a “store and forward” network or in an e-mail system. The US federal government has argued that e-mail stored on a server is no longer “in transit” and is therefore subject to different rules than are applied to “freely flowing” data. How that policy conflict will be resolved, if it is in fact recognized, is uncertain.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Because of the divergent nature of policies and laws among the various States and the difficulty in negotiating treaties, Kuner recommends a pluralistic approach to harmonizing international data protection regimes. Pluralistic harmonization is a slow and uncertain process, but it is the most realistic option at present. The difficulties of negotiating EU data protection agreements, even when granting specific exceptions such as the UK’s extended transition from paper to electronic records, argue strongly in favor of a more organic approach.

Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law focuses on commercial and routine governmental activity and, as such, doesn’t cover national security law and practice, which the US uses to justify programs such as ECHELON and other National Security Agency programs revealed in the recent past. I was somewhat surprised not to see a discussion of the proposed “right to be forgotten” that has caused so much consternation in the US, but that omission doesn’t affect my evaluation of the book.

Kuner provides a comprehensive and useful overview of data protection laws, both in the EU and elsewhere. The author’s experience in the field, thorough analysis of existing policies, and policy suggestions are of the highest caliber. I recommend Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law without reservation.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of Tim’s Vermeer

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Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, created works that diverged significantly from those of his contemporaries. Though he painted domestic scenes and portraits, his works’ appearance shared more with modern photography than paintings of his era. Where he developed these skills is a mystery — there’s no record of Vermeer’s training, which is very uncommon for artists of the mid-17th century. Normally artists listed their apprenticeships and other engagements to enhance their prestige. His works also stood out through their lack or preparatory sketches on the canvas. How he produced his work is a mystery.

Tim’s Vermeer, a Penn & Teller Film, investigates Vermeer’s process. Penn Jillette and Teller, the taller and shorter halves of Penn & Teller, respectively, have in recent years branched out from their magic show at the Rio in Las Vegas. Their other projects include Penn’s appearances on Celebrity Apprentice and Teller’s well-received direction of Macbeth. The “Tim” of the film’s title is Tim Jenison, a technologist, inventor, and friend of Penn’s for many years. Jenison surged to nerd prominence in the 1980s with products such as DigiView and the iconic Video Toaster. His company, NewTek, produces LightWave 3D, popular modeling software for artists, designers, and engineers.

During a conversation with Penn, Tim casually remarked that he was trying to recreate a Vermeer painting. Tim’s not a painter, but he has an inventive mind, an eye for detail, and an understanding of light from his work as a 3D design software developer. He happened to read British artist  David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which postulated that Vermeer had used optical aids to produce his work.  Over time, Tim intuited and tested a process that combined camera obscura projection and a series of mirrors to magnify the subject image and compare the subject’s color with that on the canvas. When there is no discernable step at the edge of the comparison mirror, a condition that surely brings joy to professional magicians Penn & Teller, the rendering matches the subject.

The film then describes Tim’s efforts to research the piece he has chosen to recreate, The Music Lesson, and build a full-size physical model of the scene in a San Antonio warehouse. One light-hearted moment comes when Tim and the gang visit London and request permission from the Queen of England to view the original work, which is in the crown’s private collection in Buckingham Palace. Originally denied access, Penn & Teller recorded a rant that could easily have fit into their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Fortunately, just a portion of this segment played briefly and at very low volume while Penn’s voiceover revealed the Queen had changed her mind and granted Tim a half-hour viewing.

While in England, Tim had the opportunity to speak with several experts, including David Hockney. One shot in Hockney’s studio deliberately exposes the reflection of the director, Teller, and a cameraman in a full-length dressing mirror in Hockney’s studio. It’s a nice touch that reminds us we are watching a mediated depiction of a conversation about a mediated depiction of reality.

Back in San Antonio, Tim’s team constructs the set and he starts painting in earnest. There are many terrific moments in this part of the film, but I won’t spoil them for you. I will say that, at a late stage of the project, Tim’s dedication to detail threatened to turn part of the process from a Seurat-like pointillist rendering into a Sartre-like existentialist nightmare. To his credit, Teller chose not to hype Tim’s obsession on the project. Rather, he lets the viewer empathize with Tim by bringing to mind pursuits they’ve taken to unlikely extremes.

I recommend Tim’s Vermeer without reservation. It’s a compact film, running just 80 minutes, and I plan to buy DVD copies of it as gifts for friends. That said, I did have some small issues with the piece. There were several instances of double exposition, where an interview or voiceover repeated the same information in close proximity. Also, I felt that sped-up sequences where Tim shifted between views of the set’s LightWave 3D model were interesting eye candy but went on a bit long and added nothing to the narrative. I found similar set construction sequences to be effective, so maybe I didn’t see how the computer graphics furthered the story. 

Regardless of these minor complaints, I think Tim’s Vermeer is a terrific documentary that will appeal to anyone who has ever thought “That’s funny…” and followed their observation to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion.

Tim’s Vermeer runs through March 20, 2014 at Cinema 21 in Portland, OR. You can find more information about the film, as well as showtimes and venues in other cities, at its dedicated page on the Sony Classics site.

Variety Keeps Things Fun!

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I cringe whenever I hear an improviser say, “Whenever someone does this, I always do that.” If you have multiple people doing that, you always get the same result. There are two improv games that rely on this gimmick: Mr. So-and-So and Pavlovian Response. In Mr. So-and-So, every time a player comes on stage, another player endows him with a particular characteristic. For example, a player could walk on stage and be greeted with, “Hello Mr. Yawns When He Talks.” When the player honors that endowment, he will yawn whenever he opens his mouth to speak.

Even though I say you shouldn’t repeat gags as you go along, I know that players with any significant experience will have characters and bits they can go back to when needed. They’re fine in small doses, but don’t depend on them.

In the game of Pavlovian Response, every player is given a trigger and an action that occurs whenever the trigger is noticed. A player might bark like a dog whenever someone turns away from her. You can have a lot of fun chaining these reactions together. Perhaps, upon hearing the word the, a player could respond by leaving the stage. Another player could be assigned to clap her hands twice whenever someone leaves the stage. If you want to get crazy, you can endow the light operator to turn the lights on or off whenever someone claps their hands twice.

In offstage life, not every interaction has to be unique. Companies have policies and procedures in place for very good reasons: legal compliance, standards compliance, and maintaining audit trails. For example, if you’re in a customer-facing position, you need to have a series of procedures you work through to be sure you weed out the simplest and easiest-to-fix problems. (You’re attempting to save your time at the expense of your customer’s autonomy, but that’s another story.)

One of the best interactions I’ve had with the company happened very recently. My house has a watering system from Rain Bird. After a power outage, the system turned on, and the only way to get it to turn off was to unplug the system’s control board. After working through the manual, neither my wife nor I could get the system to reset correctly. I called the company’s toll-free help line and, after a couple of questions to verify my information, the technician simply asked me to describe what was going on. Using his expertise with the systems, he was able to guide me to a solution very quickly. This interaction represented the best combination of procedure and allowing for open-ended input that I’ve encountered in quite some time.

In the end, your best bet as an improviser is to embrace the reality of the scene as you and your fellow performers have created it, and allow yourself to go in new directions. In business, you need to be ready to face the unexpected, but you should rely on existing procedures that help ensure smooth operations within your company.

Institutional Memory and Improv

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One of the best ways to pass on important information is to relate what happened on a trip, in a game, or during warm-ups. The more you know about the variety of situations you can face and how to handle them, the better off you are. Stephen Denning emphasizes the value of these stories in A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:

Listening to these stories isn’t merely entertainment: it leads to the acquisition of vicarious experience by those participating. The limitation of sharing stories in an informal setting is that those who aren’t present to learn. This limitation was overcome by the Xerox Corporation in its Eureka program, in which photocopy technicians were given two-way radios so they could be constantly in contact and share experiences; the most useful of the stories were vetted and made available on the web to the entire workforce of 25,000 technicians.

In addition to our online forums, ComedySportz maintains an internal wiki of games and warm-ups. A wiki is a shared database of information that can be edited by any member of the group. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a public wiki.

The Portland team also has occasional workshops in which individual players get 10–15 minutes to share knowledge on a topic we’re comfortable with. Some companies have brown bag lunches based on a similar theme. One project I haven’t started yet, but hope to soon, is something I borrowed from a former boss at The MITRE Corporation. He sent out a survey asking what languages people spoke, what skills they had, and so on. A spreadsheet or database that contains this information can be extremely valuable when a situation arises and you need someone who can read Gujarati or can recommend a business hotel in the South Kensington area of London.

Review of The Humor Code

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Title: The Humor Code

Authors: Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-451-66541-3

Length: 256

Price: $26.00

Rating: 93%

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through the NetGalley service.

The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, traces the pair’s global journey to investigate McGraw’s “Benign Violation” theory of humor. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). Warner is a professional journalist. Neither he nor McGraw had any significant performance experience, but they did have a taste for adventure that took them to some complex and potentially dangerous locales, such as remote Tanzania, Palestine, and Los Angeles. Neither author shied away from jumping into an unheated Peruvian military cargo plane with a load of clowns.

No, really—a planeload of clowns. More on that later.

Not Off to a Promising Start

When we first meet our heroes the Professor, sporting his signature sweater vest, is about to do a few minutes at a stand-up open mic night. The bad news is that the crowd is known to be tough and they’re expecting anatomy jokes. You probably won’t be surprised that the guy with the Ph. D. bombed in that environment. This expected and very forgivable failure is brought into sharper relief when you realize that the goal of the exercise is to help prepare McGraw for an appearance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

Comedy is hard. Social interactions with comedians are exceptionally hard. A few pages after the introduction, the authors related how they took the wrong approach to their backstage meeting with Louis C. K. The comedian probably expected academic or thoughtful questions, but McGraw went straight for the anatomy joke, which probably conjured up bad fan interactions and led to an early exit. They were better than most amateurs in that they seemed to understand they’d crossed a line and it was time to leave, but what they didn’t get at that point in the narrative was the vulnerability required to step on stage and do Louis C. K.’s material. You have to be in the proper emotional place to get there as a performer; two guys interviewing a hungry comedian before a show and going all awkward fanboy will kill the mood immediately.

Theory of the Benign Violation

The given circumstances of the book are the authors’ attempts to investigate McGraw’s theory of the Benign Violation. I first learned about the theory from McGraw’s guest lecture for Dan Ariely’s online course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, presented through Coursera. The basic idea is that humor requires a certain level of discomfort. In this construct, a statement or concept can be:

Benign, which means minimal or no discomfort;

Violation, which maximizes discomfort by challenging deep convictions or evoking disgust;

Benign Violation, which involves enough discomfort to throw the listener off balance, but not enough to disgust or challenge deeply held beliefs.

McGraw argues that, once the listener is uncentered but not overly offended, the comedian can use exaggeration or another technique to twist the reality and generate laughter. It’s an eminently reasonable take on comedy in the English-speaking world, but the question is how well it would hold up internationally. Part of the answer could come from determining why people laugh in the first place.

Why Do We Laugh?

Nobody knows.

The Journey

To start, the authors sampled dishes from the U.S. comedy scene, including stand-up performances and an improvisational comedy workshop with an Upright Citizens Brigade teacher in L.A. I’ve been a professional improviser since 1993 (and, like McGraw, failed horribly at stand-up) and agree with the authors that stand-up and improv are two different worlds. Stand-up comedians go on stage by themselves and (mostly) deliver prepared material, but improvisers usually perform as part of a group, don’t have to carry the load themselves, and ego-involve the audience by using their suggestions.

As the authors note, improv classes often attract serial workshoppers who might have no hope of performing due to job or family demands or a debilitating lack of funny, but who enjoy the social experience:

Our UCB class lasts for hours, but the time flies. Improv is play, and it’s a lot of fun. Afterward, at a nearby coffee shop, the students seem ready to do it all again. “I love using another person to succeed or fail on stage,” one of them tells us. “It’s freeing,” says another. “It’s like therapy-light,” raves a third.

It’s not at all uncommon for participants in an improv workshop to go out for drinks afterward. I’ve certainly benefitted from the social aspects of improv and hope to do so for many more years.

From Boulder, L.A., and New York they went on to destinations including Japan, Scandinavia, Tanzania, and Peru. That last destination cast McGraw and Warner as clowns on a team led by Hunter “Patch” Adams (made famous by the movie starring Robin Williams). The team’s mission is to bring relief to a village in the Peruvian Amazon. McGraw started as a clown but transitioned to the role of civilian guide and overseer, as befitting his experience as an impartial observer of humor. Warner, the journalist, dug into his role as a clown…he is told and personally discovers that, when you put on the nose, you have permission to “go insane” in the sense that you become someone else.

That sentiment, of losing oneself in your clown character, echoes the thoughts of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone founded the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (the inspiration for ComedySportz, the organization I’ve performed with since 1996). In his classic book Impro, he described mask work as an opportunity to lose yourself in another entity. The pull can be so strong that everyone must agree to take their masks off when directed to do so. It’s a powerful technique and should not be attempted by beginners.

The Book as a Book

I enjoyed the progressive narrative, which chronicled the authors’ experiences and worked McGraw’s theories into the story’s flow. This approach stands in contrast to other recent participatory journalism titles I’ve reviewed, which alternate between the author’s experiences and history or theory. For example, Tower of Babel alternates between chapters about extreme language learners of the present day and the history of an Italian priest who was famous for his linguistic skills. Similarly, Moonwalking with Einstein alternates between the author’s preparation for and participation in the U.S. national memory competition and the history and practice of memorization. There’s nothing wrong with either framework, but I personally enjoyed a break from the strict alternating chapter approach.

I also appreciated the authors’ journey as human beings. Their work as part of the clown mission to the Amazon village came at the end of the arc that started in the developed world, continued through developing Africa, and ended in a subsistence-level community. Though they never explicitly stated that they understood at a visceral level where they’d gone wrong with Louis C. K., I bet they knew.

Conclusions

At the end of The Humor Code, McGraw goes on stage in Montreal and doesn’t bomb. I’ll leave the specifics of his solution as a surprise for when you read the book, but as a nerd who does comedy I appreciated how he solved the problem of presenting at a comedy festival without being an experienced comedian. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Helping Your Team (and Teammates) Succeed

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Most improv is a team sport. Except for solo acts, everyone else has to interact and cooperate with other individuals to create their product. If everyone goes on stage looking for glory, you won’t get a solid product. Rather than setting the base for a solid scene where one or two performers can deliver the lines that get the big laughs, you’ll get a bunch of one-liners delivered to an increasingly uncomfortable audience that realizes no one’s cooperating.

Performers support each other, as do athletes. Olympic athletes are part of a team and, even if they compete in individual events like luge or ski jumping, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie. That’s what makes Canadian speedskater Gilmore Junio’s selfless actions this week so special. Junio skated in the 500m event, finishing 11th. He had also qualified for the 1,000m, but gave up his spot to his teammate Denny Morrison. As Junio said:

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the team if he races. To represent Canada at the Olympics is a huge honor and privilege but I believe that as Canadians, we’re not just here to compete; we are here to win. Denny has proven to be a consistent medal threat in the distance.”

Morrison went on to win the silver medal in the 1,000m event and has nominated Junio to be the Canadian flag bearer during the closing ceremonies. I think it’s a great idea and, if he’s chosen, hope Junio stays in the Olympic Village to accept the honor.

Congratulations to Denny Morrison for winning the silver, much respect to Gilbert Junio for putting the team first, and good luck to Canada in the rest of the Games. You’re doing it right.

Review: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

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In addition to blogging here, writing books, and creating online training courses, I’m also the editor and lead reviewer for Technology and Society Book Reviews. Here’s my most recent review.

Title: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

Author: Paul Oyer

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-4221-9165-1

Length: 256

Price: $25.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating, written by Paul Oyer and published by Harvard Business Review Press, takes a friendly approach to teaching basic economic concepts. The book covers topics including search, signalling, selection, and network externalities, in an approachable and personal manner. Oyer tells the tale through his own experiences in online dating. As someone who met his wife through online dating, I found myself rooting for the balding economist trying to find love while going through an unhurried divorce.

Light-Hearted, but not Lightweight

Paul Oyer is a professor of economics at the Stanford graduate school of business, so he is used to explaining economics to graduate students. It’s not a simple undertaking to translate that knowledge into terms that can be understood by the general reader. Yes, I understand that anyone who would purchase a book published by Harvard Business Review Press is probably not your average reader, but the book’s title and in the author’s writing style make it clear that this is not a weighty academic tome. If you want one of those, see if you can find a copy of The Economics of Electronic Commerce by Choi, Stahl, and Whinston, which I reviewed on this site in 1998.

Online dating is an interesting process. You go to a site such as Match.com or OkCupid, fill out a profile or answer questions, and let the computer code running in the background show you who it thinks you might be compatible with. It’s a combination of many economic activities: advertising, search, signaling, and network effects among many others. And, just as economics is often called the “dismal science”, online dating can take on an air of despair when you’ve been at it for a while but haven’t found anyone to spend time with.

Of course, some of this frustration can be self-inflicted. On page 12, the author cites an online dating profile published by a graduate student in China:

Never married; master’s degree or more; not from Wuhan; no rural ID card; no only children; no smokers; no alcoholics; no gamblers; taller than 172 cm; more than a year of dating before marriage; sporty; parents are still together; annual salary over 50,000 yuan; between 26 and 32 years of age; willing to guarantee eating for dinners at home per week; at least two ex-girlfriends, but no more than four; no Virgos; no Capricorns.

I hate to say it, but I think the guy she’s looking for is already married.

Economics and the Online World

I’d imagine that most of my readers will be familiar with at least some of the economic concepts that Oyer discusses in this book. That said, even though I have spent quite a bit of time with the popular literature discussing the economics of online commerce, I learned a few things from reading his book and was reminded of quite a few more concepts that I hadn’t encountered for a while. I also like that the author summarizes the economic concepts that he discussed in each chapter with a series of takeaways at the end. He lists a key insight from economics, a valuable or important empirical finding by economists, how dating compares to the concept discussed in the chapter, and a bit of humorous dating advice that puts a button on the chapter. In the chapter on signaling, for example, he gives this dating advice: “If you want to prove you are rich, burn a big pile of money on the first date.”

I enjoyed the author’s take on economics through the lens of online dating. He writes in a familiar, personal style, and ties the economic concepts he wants to explain into his personal narrative seamlessly. I’m just guessing, but I bet his first draft was pretty good. His editor, Tim Sullivan, certainly helped bring the manuscript together into an enjoyable, coherent whole.

Conclusions

I recommend Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating to anyone who is interested in contemporary economics, either as a casual reader just digging into the subject or as a more experienced hand who would enjoy a good-natured review.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over twenty online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

Spend a Five or Break a Twenty? The Denomination Effect

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I’m sure many of us understand the denomination effect on a visceral level. If you’ve ever been in a store, saw something you wanted, but hesitated to buy it because you’d have to pull out a big bill, you’ve experienced this effect. Why did you hesitate? Because you knew that breaking that $20, $50 or $100 bill made it that much easier to spend your change.

Perhaps that’s why prices near a dollar amount, particularly $4.99, $9.99, $19.99, and $99.99 are so attractive to the consumer’s eye. You’re trading one physical item (a printed piece of paper) for another (perhaps a flash drive) and getting a tiny bit of money back. I wonder how much of the attractiveness of prices just below a currency denomination depends on the fact that you’re getting some change back as opposed to the first number being one less (e.g., $19.99 versus $20.00). I bet the two phenomena are intertwined in some interesting psychological ways.

You also see the denomination effect at work in gambling, but the effect works differently there depending on the game and situation. Knowledgeable poker players experience the reverse effect, becoming less likely to get involved in hands when they have fewer chips in their stack. They hesitate to invest in a hand because, when you are low on funds, the relative value of each chip goes up. Other players can use this hesitancy to their advantage and bet big to drive the small stacks out of a pot, but the small stacks can make a modest bet to induce a bluff raise from a big stack, but the big stacks can raise and hope the small stacks will think they’ve fallen into their trap, but…

You get the idea. Poker’s fun, but bring aspirin.