Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

In Praise of Room Tone

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As an online course author, I record content that video editors, graphic artists, compositors, and other professionals transform into a final product. I edited two of my own courses, so I can say with certainty that there are plenty of folks out there who are much better at it than I am and deserve to be paid well for their work.

Room tone, a recording of silence in the area where the course is recorded (in my case, a sound booth manufactured by WhisperRoom), lets editors smooth out the rough transitions that result when they cut out part of a track. The team asks authors to provide 30 seconds of room tone so editors can lay it under multiple cuts without too many paste operations.

I use those 30 seconds to reflect on the course I just recorded, remembering the work it took to put the raw materials in place for the production team to work their magic. I say “magic” intentionally–if something seems effortless, you know a lot of work went into making it look that way. As I remember my own efforts, I reaffirm my appreciation for the work the rest of the team does to create, distribute, and promote the course.

Written by curtisfrye

February 16, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Review of Hungry Ghosts, by Stephen Blackmoore

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Title: Hungry Ghosts

Author: Stephen Blackmoore

Publisher: DAW Books

ISBN13: 978-0-756-40941-8

Release: February 7, 2017

Available for purchase from Powell’s, Amazon, or B&N.


I received a free electronic copy of this book for review.

I enjoy urban fantasy, specifically stories that borrow heavily from the film noir and hard-boiled detective genres. Stephen Blackmoore’s Eric Carter novels fit the bill nicely.

Hungry Ghosts is the third installment in the series, following Dead Things and Broken Souls. In Blackmoore’s world, magic relies on a local grid wizards can tap into. The specific expression of that power varies among wizards, with Eric Carter drawn to one of the rarest specialties: necromancer. He is a strong natural talent, but a series of adventures has given him exceptional abilities.

Great strength often comes at great cost, and Carter’s power boost is no exception. The events of the first two books led to his becoming entangled with Santa Muerte, originally known as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death. “Entangled with” as in “married to.” Mortals pledging themselves to gods can result in significant complications and side effects up to and including fates worse than death, so Carter is properly motivated to take extreme measures to save himself.

The first two novels in the series set up the action in Hungry Ghosts, so I won’t detail the events that put the author’s protagonist in this bind. The action is entertaining and, true to the book’s hard-boiled antecedents, occasionally violent. Okay, fine…you got me: more than occasionally. And yet I never have the feeling that Blackmoore adds violence for its own sake. Instead, frequenting the world of the dead (literally) and carrying around the messed-up baggage that comes with it makes Eric Carter familiar with and capable of delivering death in its various forms.

As an author, Blackmoore writes in a straightforward style that I find engaging. The gritty industrial locations of his mortal criminals’ lairs stand in sharp contrast to the land of the dead and the magical elements present when Aztec gods manifest. The events of Hungry Ghosts takes Eric Carter through regions of existence he had (mostly) heard of but hoped never to traverse. The ongoing exploration of the landscape and Carter’s reaction to it kept me interested throughout. Again, Blackmoore’s direct style serves him well here. He splits his narrative between milieu and character wisely, providing every detail I need to appreciate the challenges of the setting and the consequences of failure while following his protagonist’s thought process as he works through increasingly daunting situations.

I highly recommend Hungry Ghosts and its predecessors, though I do have a couple of caveats given the books’ subject matter and presentation. First, the novels include a fair amount of profanity. I believe the characters’ language, like the violence, is organic to the story, so it doesn’t bother me. Second, readers who shy away from descriptions of bloody crime scenes or casually mentioning a shotgun blast to the back of the knee should pick other books.

I loved all three Eric Carter novels, especially Hungry Ghosts. If you enjoy (or think you might enjoy) urban fantasy, I’m sure you will, too.

Written by curtisfrye

January 7, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Sometimes the Secret is Effort

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I was recently accepted into the University of Illinois’ iMBA program, which offers students the opportunity to earn an accredited MBA degree in a fully online setting. I’m currently in my fifth class, but have supplemented my reading with studies and articles on business topics outside of the required reading. As you might imagine, process measurement and management come up frequently; references to Lean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies abound in the literature.

These frameworks use precise measurements to analyze the defect rate, or the rate at which failures occur. Those defects could be missed deliveries, flights arriving more than fifteen minutes late, or products failing within the standard warranty period. Analysts spend hundreds of hours examining processes in an attempt to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the system, whether by reducing the number of movements autoworkers make when attaching a door to a frame, picking items from warehouse bins, or building algorithms to limit the number of miles traveled by delivery vehicles.

Even though these analytical methods have led to substantial process improvements, there is a lot to be said for the empirical knowledge you gain from working within a system. Long-time workers have often developed their own efficiencies (management-speak for shortcuts) they share with their co-workers out of earshot of their supervisors so they don’t get in trouble for deviating from protocol. One prominent example of applied empirical knowledge is the dabbawalas, or tiffinwalas, who deliver hot lunches in Mumbai, India. Customers who want home-cooked meals at work often can’t bring their own food because the trains are too crowded for the containers or because their water supply isn’t available in time for cooking in the morning. Rather than eat at the company canteen, they order their meals from cooks around town. The meals are picked up and delivered by the dabbawalas through an intricate system of hand-offs that uses trains, buses, carts, bikes, and human muscle to get the aluminum lunch containers (the tiffins) to their destination on time.

The dabbawalas’ marking system uses color and single characters to distinguish district, neighborhood, building, and floor, in part because most of the dabbawalas left school after their eighth year. Transfers happen quickly and with minimal errors. As a testament to the strength of their system, consider that a process is considered Six Sigma certifiable if its defect rate is less than 34 out of 1,000,000 opportunities. The dabbawalas’ miss a delivery target at a rate of 1 out of 6,000,000 opportunities. That’s astonishing. And, yes, the dabbawalas are Six Sigma certified, but they didn’t find out about the award until a couple of years after it happened!

To what may we attribute their success? Their system is amazing and has been the subject of numerous studies, but remember how the tiffins are delivered. Once the containers come off their final train ride, they’re transported by humans on bikes, carts, and the traditional method of grabbing a bunch of lunch pail handles and lugging them up several flights of stairs. And the walas work hard. When you watch one of the YouTube videos showing the process in action, you can’t help but notice the focus, determination, and sheer effort required to move the tiffins on and off trains, sort them accurately, and get them to their destination on time.

Less than 100 years ago, my grandparents worked in a shoe factory without the benefit of union protection. Steelworkers, pipefitters, plumbers, and construction workers work hard and for long hours at difficult jobs today. Along with the tradesmen and women who drive our economy forward, the dabbawalas reinforce the universal truth that the best system is worthless if you’re not willing to make the effort required for success.

Page 187

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Donald Trump just hit page 187.

Allow me to explain. Most contemporary nonfiction books with a dramatic arc run about 350 pages. The first part of the narrative builds up the protagonist, showing his or her path to the pinnacle of their experience. Of course, books about situations where everything goes smoothly don’t sell as well as books with flawed heroes whose fortunes take a turn for the worse. Based on a quick and completely unscientific check of five books in my library, that point appears to come around page 187.

The American media treated Donald Trump as a curiosity and an easy ratings boost until the Republican national convention in July. Now that he has secured the Republican presidential nomination, it’s time for the story to change. Earning the nomination is only the first half of the plot — there’s still another 150 to 200 pages to go.

As Marco Rubio might’ve said four or five times, let’s dispense with the fiction that the media doesn’t know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing. Up until now, coverage of Donald Trump has focused on the spectacle he creates among his followers. With infrequent (but increasing) exceptions, the media has simply broadcast his statements without significant comment. While there were some challenges from the mainstream media, especially liberal outlets such as MSNBC, most of the conversation surrounding Trump’s utterances reflected disbelief rather than critique.

Now that we are into August, and Trump is officially the nominee, it seems that the media has adopted a new approach. A much more aggressive approach. It’s in the media’s best interest to ensure that Trump remains a viable candidate for as long as possible so they have a race to cover, but they also have a duty to report and interpret the news. Setting aside the laughably inappropriate Fox News motto “We report, you decide”, and MSNBC’s admittedly liberal coverage, it’s now time for news outlets not owned by Rupert Murdoch to satisfy consumer desire by tearing Trump down from the top of the wall he has built. And who knows, maybe the Wall Street Journal will take a stand as well. I don’t expect positive mentions of Hillary Clinton on the Journal’s editorial page, but I don’t anticipate a ringing endorsement of Trump, either.

The trick to tearing down a public figure is to not empty your clip in one burst. There are 99 days until the general election, so media outlets will need to distribute their material over that time. Fortunately, Trump has given them plenty of items work with, helpfully distributing his offensive utterances over categories including, but not limited to: racism, sexism, abuse, ignorance of world affairs, and extreme sensitivity to criticism. The trick is not to find examples of unpresidential behavior, but rather to narrow down the available material into a coherent narrative and avoid saturating audiences with negative coverage.

Research has shown that a political attack ad or piece of adverse news coverage lives in voter memory for about three days. The 24-hour news cycle has changed that consideration a bit, but you don’t want to depress your viewers whenever they switch to your channel. As we work our way from page 188 to 350, we’ll see the media taking occasional breaks from a critical coverage of both candidates. Doing so gives consumers a chance to rest before the next plot point. That’s how accomplished storytellers ply their trade. Rest assured, though, that all respites will be temporary.

Donald Trump’s media strategy was to earn all of the free coverage he wanted. By some estimates, he’s already gotten over $1 billion of media time simply for being outrageous. If he truly believes that there is a no such thing as bad publicity, then the next 99 days should be an absolute joy.

I suspect he’ll change his mind.

Written by curtisfrye

August 1, 2016 at 11:03 am

Review of Infomocracy, by Malka Older

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Title: Infomocracy

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: Tor.com

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-765-38515-4

Length: 384

Price: $24.99

Rating: 98%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Tor.com releases Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy on June 7, into the teeth of a U.S. presidential election cycle, which is the best possible time for the book to come out. I’m happy to report that both publisher and author make the most of the opportunity.

World of Infomocracy

Infomocracy envisions a speculative future in the mid-to-late 21st century where most states have joined a world government system based on local rule. Under this system, the countries have been divided into centenals, which are governing units of 100,000 residents. Each centenal may chose the regime by which they wish to be governed, with choices including ideological governments such as Heritage (conservative), Liberty (libertarian), or Policy1st (everyone’s dream party that advocates the “demonstrably best” policies on each issue, for some definitions of “demonstrably best”); corporate governments including Phillip Morris, 888, and Coca-Cola; and a smattering of nationalist and local parties. The government that wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority, which gives it significant influence at the supranational level. Some countries, including likely candidates Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, decided not to join the world government scheme and govern independently.

At the center of Older’s world lies Information, a global service that combines our current internet, the Internet of Things (e.g., this pachinko machine paid out a 28,000 yen jackpot on such and such a date), as well as manipulable visualizations and heads-up displays. I think the combination of a governing scheme akin to that found in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with an information service more like the one described in Minority Report serves the story’s needs admirably.

Ground Game

The popular aphorism that “all politics is local” describes a world divided into 100,000-person mini-states quite well. Infomocracy follows Ken, an undercover agent of influence for Policy1st, and Mishima, a researcher and sometime security worker for Information. As in William Gibson’s novels such as Pattern Recognition, we receive the barest hints of what the main characters look like, focusing instead on what they know, what they do, and how they react within their milieu.

As the story progresses, we follow Ken and Mishima around the world as they embark on assignments, react to emergencies, and explore their burgeoning relationship. Sometimes their efforts create the desired change, sometimes they get a mixed result, and sometimes everything goes wrong. Those varied outcomes, which highlight the joy and pain that are never far from the tactical-level worker’s mind, are no doubt the product of Older’s work as a humanitarian aid worker in Japan, Darfur, Mali, and other places (including three years as a team leader), as well as her appointment as a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015. When you consider that experience in tandem with her master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. work at l’Institut d’Études Politques de Paris, you get a sense of the intellectual firepower she brings to the task.

Events in Infomocracy proceed in a manner that is both familiar and surprising. To paraphrase Chekhov, “If you see a global information network over the fireplace in Act One, it will go off in Act Five.” We don’t quite get to Act Five before the information and communication grid goes down, but fail it does and the hell that was breaking loose accelerates into a maelstrom Ken and Mishima must navigate.

Older brings the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. I didn’t give the book a 100% rating because I thought a few minor elements weren’t handled as well as they might have been, but I don’t feel compelled to write an artificially “balanced” review that makes too much of those quibbles. The book’s too good to spend much time on a few bits that were merely good instead of outstanding.

Conclusion

Infomocracy doesn’t read like a first novel—rather, it reads like the work of an experienced author who can leverage her significant life experience into a compelling narrative. I recommend Malka Older’s Infomocracy enthusiastically and without reservation. I look forward to her next book.

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 40 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.

Written by curtisfrye

May 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Review of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life

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Title: Quantified

Editor: Dawn Nafus

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52875-7

Length: 280

Price: $27.00

Rating: 92%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Fitness trackers, such as the Nike+ FuelBand, FitBit, and (in some modes) the Apple Watch have grown in popularity over the past several years. Knowledge of one’s activity levels and physical state, even if measured somewhat inaccurately by contemporary sensors, empowers users by providing insights into one’s relative health and activity levels. Other sensors, including implanted devices such as pacemakers, record data more accurately at the cost of greater intrusion upon the self. In Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life, Dawn Nafus, a Senior Research Scientist at Intel Labs, leads an investigation into the anthropoligical implications of new technologies and applications.

Organization and Coverage

Quantified is a collection of papers from the Biosensors in Everyday Life project, a multi-year effort with representatives from several institutions that examined how biosensing technologies, using either”wet” sensors (e.g., saliva, blood, or another bodily fluid) or “dry” sensors (e.g., heart rate, temperature, or blood pressure), impacts individuals and society as a whole.Nafus divided Quantifiedinto three sections: Biosensing and Representation, Institutional Arrangements, and Seeing Like a Builder. The first section, Biosensing and Representation, contains four chapters that examine the Quantified Self (QS) movement from an academic perspective. The first three pieces are, as Nafus admits, written by academics using academic language. I was happy to discover those pieces are accessible to the general reader, which isn’t always the case with articles or dissertations written by specialists for specialists. For non-academics like myself, the first three chapters provide a useful glimpse at how professional scholars approach biosensing as both practice and artifact. The fourth piece, by Wired contributing editor and QS movement leader Gary Wolf, provides a bit of push-back against the strictly academic approach to biosensing.

The Institutional Arrangements section examines QS in terms of regulation, privacy, and autonomy. Images of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and assumed observation as presented in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or Orwell’s 1984 immediately come to mind, but as with every new technology access to information is regulated by differing privacy regimes at the regional, national, and supranational level.

The final section, Seeing Like a Builder, approaches biosensing from the perspective of mechanical engineering, device design, and data management. The first chapter is an edited conversation between Nafus, Deborah Estrin of Cornell Tech in New York City, and Anna de Paula Hanika of Open mHealth about the role of open data in the biosensing movement. Subsequent chapters investigate environmental monitoring, data available through the City of London’s bike rental program, and personal genomics.

Topics of Interest

I’ve written a fair amount about privacy issues and public policy, so I naturally gravitated toward the essays in the Institutional Arrangements section. In the Biosensing in Context chapter, Nissenbaum and Patterson apply the framework of Contextual Integrity to data captured by biosensors. As the name implies, Contextual Integrity addresses the appropriate sharing of information given its context, rather than a coarser set of norms established by law or policy. For individuals taking advantage of QS technologies, they might want to share information with other members of the movement to gain insights from their combined knowledge (called the “n of a billion 1’s” approach elsewhere in the collection). Marking appropriate sharing and usage depends on accurate metadata, which is discussed in Estrin and de Paula Hanika’s exploration of the Open mHealth data framework from the Seeing Like a Builder section.

In Disruption and the Political Economy of Biosensor Data, Fiore-Garland and Neff address the narrative that new technologies favor democracy and democratization. Specifically, they challenge the notion that disruptive change is, by definition, good. As they note:

In their most extreme form, disruption discourses use the concepts of democracy and democratization as ways to describe technological change, and in doing so ascribe social power to technological change in a teleological, deterministic way: if we say a technology disrupts power by bringing democratic access to data or power, then the technology will be democratic.

As rhetorical constructs, “disruption” and “democratization” invoke ideas of personal freedom and autonomy, implicitly denying traditional authorities control over one’s data. As with most business models based on platforms that provide the medium through which data is shared (e.g., Facebook), this argument is inherently self-serving. In the United States, private companies face few barriers to collecting and analyzing individual data, and practically none at all if the data has been shared openly and intentionally. While the interaction of health privacy laws and QS data sharing has yet to be tested, existing precedent argues strongly in favor of an interpretation favorable to companies that want to analyze the data for private gain.

I also enjoyed Marc Böhlen’s chapter Field Notes in Contamination Studies, which chronicled his team’s effort to track water quality in Indonesia. Böhlen’s team had to wrestle with the cultural implications of their work and account for both the expectations of the Indonesian citizens affected by their monitoring as well as the initial suspicions of the Indonesian government. I hadn’t encountered a narrative of this type before, so I appreciated learning more about his team’s work.

Conclusion

Quantified is an excellent first multidisciplinary study of the Quantified Self movement. The field is certain to evolve quickly, but the pieces in this book provide a strong base on which to perform future analysis.

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 40 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.

Written by curtisfrye

May 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

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Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, wrote a guest article for MIT Technology Review that offered his perspective on how the spectacular public failure of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot could have been avoided. Hammond brings up some good points, but I believe his analysis is incomplete.

What…Happened???

Many of you have probably heard about Tay, the youthful-seeming chatbot Microsoft released into the wilds of Twitter. Within a very short time, malicious users took advantage of the bot’s learning algorithms and caused it to create homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic tweets. In a press release, Microsoft noted that they hadn’t had a problem when they tested a version of Tay in China, but I argue the team should have suspected the cadre of trolls on Twitter would take shots at the bot and try to make it produce offensive tweets. At the very least, the team should have built in a list of banned terms rather than use a strictly naive learning procedure.

Hammond, who is both a computer scientist and improv comedian, argues that using a combination of techniques inspired by Marvin Minsky and improv comedy could have helped avoid the worst effects of malicious targeting. I agree, and believe his notes assessing the difficulty of the AI problem Microsoft tackled are spot on. I do have some significant disagreements with his suggestions for how using improv techniques, specifically regarding show management, would help.

Improvised Doesn’t Mean Unstructured

Improv comedy groups, which rely on audience suggestions to make the show run, must determine how much control they want to grant the audience. Some groups are open to any and all suggestions, regardless of how offensive, and build the best scene they can given the subject matter. Other groups control their subject matter more closely. The trick is finding the right balance to do a show you’re comfortable with and that will attract an audience. But beyond attracting an audience, you must attract the audience you want.

Much, if not most, improv is done in bars. This consideration is especially true in the Chicago area, where Hammond works. That consideration means at least a portion of your audience didn’t know they were going to see an improv show, doesn’t want to see an improv show, and are drinking. A lot. Hammond notes that groups can manage their show by choosing which suggestions to ignore (perfectly acceptable) or by pointing out that it’s ridiculously obvious someone making deliberately offensive suggestions just wants to manipulate the show. He further states that a similar technique could work on Twitter:

Nothing neutralizes a bully as well as being called out. My guess is that if Tay pointed out that it knew it was being played in one-on-one interactions and provided attribution for newly learned “facts” when using them in public tweets, the shaming effect would have been enough to shut down even the nastiest attacks.

I believe Hammond is just plain wrong on this point. As Whitney Phillips, now a professor at Penfield College of Mercer University, discussed at length in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Internet anonymity shields trolls from the consequences of their actions. Trolls do what they do for lulz, laughs at someone else’s expense, and either don’t care or get lulz when their unattributed Twitter posts provoke someone enough to warrant a counterattack. Alcohol provides a similar shield for audience members watching improv shows in bars. The bar makes money off drinks…entertainers are just there to attract audiences and help maintain a steady flow of orders. Many talented performers, whether improv comedians or musicians, have lost gigs because they couldn’t get enough friends to show up and spend money each week.

I also disagree with Hammond’s depiction of the consequences for a drunk twenty-something audience member who “scream[s] out obscene suggestions that she will regret for the next two years”. First: been there, feel your pain. Second: she probably won’t regret what she said because she won’t remember what she said. For individuals such as her (or him), this incident is just one of many similar nights on the town. You just happened to be there when it went down.

Conclusion

The team behind Tay failed to accurately assess the environment into which they released their bot. That said, Microsoft can move forward by using another time-honored improv technique: the Failure Bow. When a scene, song, or on-the-spot pun goes poorly, the performer steps downstage center, faces the audience, says “I failed. Thank you.” and bows. Acknowledging the moment helps everyone move on, most of all the person who failed.