Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘audience

That’s Funny…

leave a comment »

When I need to take a few minutes away from work, I’ll jump online for a couple of games of blitz chess (five minutes to make all moves) or play backgammon against my computer. I’ve also started doing logic problems, the kind of puzzle with grids and clues such as “The orange item took 10 minutes less to print than the yellow item.” I’m not great at them, but they do provide some distraction and, as a nerd, I’m happy when I figure one out.

I’m working through the Puzzle Baron series (currently on Book 3) and have noted some of the conventions the editor follows. One of those conventions is that the puzzle’s parameters, such as the color of an object, country, or date can’t provide a contextual clue to the correct answer. As an example, you wouldn’t have a guy named Richmond who turned out to be from Virginia because Richmond is the capitol of Virginia.

When the editor changes a clue to avoid contextual clashes, it can lead to some interesting discontinuities that provide a hint to the correct answer for a clue pair. In this instance, puzzle #7 in Puzzle Baron’s Logic Puzzles: Volume 3 contains just such an edit. The puzzle asks the solver to correctly assign the birthday, name, country of origin, and profession for a set of five passport applicants. The countries are Canada, France, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, while the birthdays fall on April 13, May 18, June 14, July 16, and August 15. It’s conventional for the days and months to occur in sequence so you can give clues such as “The applicant from Norway was born one month earlier than the applicant from Sweden.” Days are often sequentially numbered as well, but in this case the months were used as levers and the days were not, so the day numbers could be changed if desired.

The oddity that made me say “That’s funny…” is the May 18 date. The other four day numbers are in sequence from 13 to 16, which makes the May 18 date stand out. I have a number of Norwegian friends, so I happen to know that May 17 is Norwegian National Day. Based on that knowledge, I assumed that the applicant from Norway would have the May 18 birthday because, if it had fallen on May 17, there would be external context to guide the solver to the correct answer. Sure enough, that’s how the puzzle worked out.

If the editor changed the date rather than the name of the country to leave an Easter egg for solvers, it’s an excellent gesture that in no way detracted from the fun I had solving the puzzle. If the change was unintentional, it’s a reminder of how seemingly irrelevant changes can make a big difference. It could have been a total accident, of course, but it’s still a cool story.

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

leave a comment »

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.


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.


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.

Theatre, Sensationalism, and Double Standards

leave a comment »

Like many of you, I was surprised to see Lindsay Lohan had been cast to play the part of Karen, the manipulative temporary secretary, in a London production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. It’s not unusual for British actors to shoot a movie during the day and do a play at night, but it’s different for Americans and I think of Lohan as a movie performer. There’s a huge difference between memorizing a few lines (that might have been changed two minutes ago) for a movie shot and preparing to do a major role in a live performance.

Lohan’s performance during the first preview appears to have been a bit ragged. Reporters at the performance agreed that she was nervous and messed up a few of her lines. That’s not unusual for a first preview…it’s the cast’s initial run with civilians in the house and everyone’s nervous. The pressure must be even more intense for someone who is trying to turn her career around. Given Lohan’s issues, I imagine the production paid a substantial sum for insurance against her ability to fulfill her contract.

That said, a few flubbed lines is nothing to be ashamed of in a first preview. My wife, another friend, and I saw several shows in London just before Lohan started her run. A very well-credentialed stage actor in Great Britain, a play based on the News of the World phone hacking scandal, jumped his lines twice in about ten minutes. In Richard III, Martin Freeman, the beloved actor who plays Dr. Watson in the popular BBC version of Sherlock, mushed his way through a line during a heated exchange and closed with “…or something like that.”

Both Great Britain and Richard III were well into their runs (in fact, Richard III just closed), so there’s nothing to say except that it’s live theatre — things happen. No one reported the other actors’ errors, so let’s give Lindsay Lohan the benefit of the doubt for a while. If she’s still missing lines after the show officially opens, then we can complain. Until then, let’s hope she can model her recovery after Robert Downey, Jr. and enjoy some success after a long string of bad decisions.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Randall Munroe’s Presentation

leave a comment »

The last of the three STDP2 presentations I’ll review was by Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic xkcd. I’ve read xkcd for years and am constantly amazed at the quality of his work.

Munroe started out by noting that it’s ridiculously easy to get in your own way by trying to automate a process that can be done perfectly well by hand. As an example, consider a chart showing character interactions in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies.


Original source:


Gandalf’s a plot hack.

                            – Randall Munroe

Munroe said that he tried for ten years, off and on, to develop a tool that could translate a script into a character interaction timeline. Finally, frustrated, he drew the graph for the original Star Wars trilogy by hand in an hour. I imagine the timeline for 12 Angry Men took slightly less time to complete.

Displaying data is easy, Munroe argued, but determining which data to show is tough. That said, some presentation modes are better than others. Once he finds an angle he likes, he looks for other ways he can leverage that approach. Recently, he published a graphic on California droughts that uses the physical shape of the state as its axes. I’d love to see this design metaphor used in other graphics.


Original source:


He makes his infographics more palatable by adding humor, such as asides about a specific data point or a joke to indicate that, while he takes the analysis seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That approach lets him reveal that the Environmental Protection Agency assigns a human life an economic value of $8.2 million when performing cost-benefit analysis without inciting his readers.

Munroe came across as a soft-spoken, gentle person who is still slightly uncomfortable speaking in public. That said, his resolve strengthened when he discussed his wife’s cancer diagnosis and how he communicated the realities of treatment and survival rates. The image that resulted, “Lanes”, is one of the most powerful infographics I’ve encountered.


Original source:


He didn’t want to leave us on such a somber note, so he concluded by showing us a graphic called “Lakes and Oceans” that he thought was interesting but nothing special. It shows the relative depths of  various bodies of water and the ocean floor. He was surprised to discover it was one of the most popular things he published that year.


Original source:


I enjoyed my time in Seattle. The presentations by Jonathan Corum, Maria Popova, and Randall Munroe gave me a burst of energy that have let me approach my own work from a fresh perspective.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Maria Popova’s Presentation

leave a comment »

Maria Popova has produced Brain Pickings since October 23, 2006. What started out as an occasional email newsletter sent to coworkers at one of the four jobs she was working to pay for college has turned into a popular and well-regarded net resource.

Her presentation was substantially different from Jonathan Corum’s. Corum concentrated on his visual design process, but Popova focused on what she calls combinatorial thinking. Her goal is to combine lots of information with a little wisdom to produce an interesting and useful intellectual product that helps readers live reflectively.

Popova’s talk centered on the seven lessons that she learned from the first seven years of producing Brain Pickings. You can find the full post with commentary on her site, but I’ll summarize the points here as she did in her talk:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
  2. Do nothing out of guilt, or for prestige, status, money or approval alone.
  3. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life.
  5. Maya Angelou famously said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them”. But even more importantly, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. As Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. Debbie Millman captures our modern predicament beautifully: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”

Popova went into points six and the seven in a bit more detail, offering quotes from Mary Oliver, Tchaikovsky, Chuck Close, and Isabel Allende to support her points. She also shared a link to an interesting visualization summarizing the sleep habits of successful writers. Though the data was necessarily a bit piecemeal and anecdotal, it appears that late risers, meaning those who typically awake around 10 AM or 11 AM, tend to produce more work but win fewer awards. For someone like me, who is firmly in the late riser camp, the good news is that there is no secret hour of awakening that means you will win a Pulitzer Prize.

She also noted that, in many ways, our work ethic fights us. American culture measures us by what we achieve and, while just showing up is important to success in life, she feels we can let ourselves fall into a routine of meaningless productivity without truly living.

Popova’s presentation was substantially different from Corum’s and, at first, I was a little put off by the lack of compelling visuals like those presented by a member of the New York Times media team. Once I realized that her focus was more on internal processes as opposed to audience-focused visualizations, I was able to appreciate her points and ended up getting quite a lot out of her presentation. She also landed me as a new supporter of Brain Pickings, earning her the price of a cup of tea each month.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Jonathan Corum’s Presentation

leave a comment »

We all have different ways of refreshing our perspectives and energies. I’m not a public person and don’t care much for gurus, but I saw the See, Think, Design, Produce seminar, organized by Edward Tufte and presented at the Westin Seattle on August 7, as a terrific opportunity to gain insights into leading professionals’ design thinking patterns.

The day’s program featured four speakers: Jonathan Corum from the New York Times; Maria Popova, curator of Brain Pickings; Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd online comic; and Edward Tufte, the design and communication guru. I got a lot out of the day — three of the four sessions were well worth my time and the other, unfortunately, reinforced criticism I’d heard from attendees of other events.

Jonathan Corum designs information visualizations for the New York Times. His work runs the gamut from seemingly simple graphics to full-on productions incorporating video and interactive web programming. He was first attracted to design work when he was quite young, when he used his pattern matching skills to see and recognize a person in the distance after a glance even though he couldn’t see that individual’s face. This event, as simple as it seems, eventually led him to see the possibilities of communicating by designing effective visualizations.

As an example, he showed illustrations from an Audubon Society book on bumblebees. The book’s graphics showed the pattern, variation, time, and location of numerous bumblebee species. The graphics were compact, easy to understand, and contained a lot of information. Corum moved onto thinking about visualizations, which in his case means sketching possible designs to communicate a concept, underlying data, or both. He emphasized that sketches are not commitments and showed a New York Times visualization that had gone through 265 iterations. “You try different things,” he said, “so that you can find something your brain recognizes, remember that aha moment, and communicate your understanding.”

Regarding design, he begged us to do more than collect and visualize trivia — whatever we display should add up to something and show meaningful patterns. As a data journalist (my term, not his), he emphasized that visualization does not equal explanation. We have to add an extra layer of explanation to be sure that our intended message gets across. When it comes time to produce a visualization, you have to learn to embrace the limitations of your medium and, in some cases, design the content to meet those restrictions.

Because video recordings of Olympic events are owned by the International Olympic Committee, for example, the New York Times had to display images of half-pipe snowboarders and downhill slalom skiers using a series of overlaid still photographs. Embracing that limitation resulted in a compelling composite image complete with callouts indicating the physical techniques the competitors used to execute a maneuver and set up for the next one.

Corum’s role as a journalist requires him to think of a broader audience, rather than just designing for an audience of one. It all comes down, he stated, to having respect for the reader or viewer, and to remember what it’s like to encounter a topic for the first time when you design a visualization.

Reasons for Playing Chess

leave a comment »

Chess is a rewarding but maddening game. You can build up an overwhelming position for the first 40 moves and then make a simple tactical error that lets your opponent back into the game or, in extreme and highly embarrassing cases, even win on the next move.

Interviewer: So, tell me…does throwing away a win hurt?

Curt: Yes. Yes it does.

You see golfers going crazy over their rounds, alternating between self-loathing over the short putts they missed and self-praise for the 150-yard shot that ended up a foot from the hole. I played golf occasionally for a few years and can testify to that effect. Some of my friends play 18 holes just so they can feel the satisfaction of hitting one good shot.

Some days they have to play 36 holes.

A golfer having a bad day still gets in some physical exercise. What about chess players? As with many endeavors, it depends on why you’re playing in the first place. You always get to exercise your brain and look over the consequences of your moves, which keeps you sharp and might fight off the effects of aging, but what else?

If you’re playing with someone who’s about your own strength, you get the benefit of an equal competition and, very likely, enough wins to keep things interesting. Playing someone stronger than you helps you learn and winning every so often helps keep you going. Playing a weaker player lets you win more often and teach the game, even if only indirectly.

What’s often overlooked is that chess can be a social game. If you play blitz chess, where players have to make all of their moves within three or five minutes, you can get in a lot of games and try many different types of positions. Playing a longer game lets you think more deeply, and playing without a clock lets you approach the game more casually.

You can also take time to analyze your game with your opponent. Serious players often try to identify the move where the winner got an advantage and what the loser missed. When done with a spirit of exploration and sharing, post-game analysis can be fun and helpful.