Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘Improspectives

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.

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.

To Be a Beginner Again

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When I think of what it means to “be a beginner” at something, I think of learning a new language or trying a new sport. I didn’t expect to rediscover the joys and struggles of being a beginner as a writer.

I had just finished Microsoft Excel 2016 Step by Step for Microsoft Press, my sixth Excel Step by Step book, when the publisher approached me to take on Microsoft OneNote Step by Step. I looked at my schedule, swallowed hard, and agreed to do it. I’d worked a bit with OneNote as part of my Office Online Essential Training course for lynda.com, so, while I wasn’t an expert, I wasn’t coming in completely cold. Besides, I’m a writer and course developer—my job is to tease out a program’s intricacies and make them clear to the reader or viewer. How hard could it be?

I’ll pause until you stop laughing.

You can write a book about anything if you do enough research, develop a few ideas of your own, and quote liberally from other sources. I just read a business book, Everything Connects, that did exactly that. The main author probably wrote a great proposal based on his experiences as a serial entrepreneur and meditation practitioner, took his advance, and wrote down everything he could about those subjects. My guess is that he produced about 150 pages for a planned 250-page book, so the publisher brought in (or had already hired) a professional writer as co-author.

I also turned to the supporting literature on OneNote for guidance, but there’s not a lot out there compared to the vast, rich resources on Excel. That said, I wrote what I could and discovered a lot as I went along, but I didn’t have an experienced user’s feel for the program. I’m fortunate Microsoft convinced Ed Price, formerly a member of the OneNote product team, to be the book’s technical editor. Ed knows the software in depth, both as a user and someone familiar with the broader customer base’s needs and desires. He added a lot of material I’d considered not important enough to include, changed the emphasis of certain sections of the book to improve its usefulness, and became, in all but name, a full co-author.

I’m grateful for the substantial help Ed provided and hope to make him a full co-author, with cover credit, when it comes time to refresh the book. As a writer it was good, though incredibly frustrating, to write about a program I hadn’t worked with extensively. I had 20 years of skill and discipline to power through a first draft we could use as a basis for critique, but I had several flashbacks to when I was just starting out and lacked the tools I have now.

I survived (with the help of Ed and others), the book will provide good value to OneNote users, and I was reminded how difficult a thing it is to produce a manuscript from whole cloth. I’m glad I agreed to help out, but I’m sure glad we’re done.

Review of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Title: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Author: Whitney Phillips

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02894-3

Length: 248

Price: $24.95

Rating: 90%

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

Ah, trolls…so much fun to watch when they’re harassing someone you think deserves it and so infuriating when they get under your skin. Whitney Phillips, a lecturer in the department of communications at Humboldt State University, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oregon on trolling behavior. That dissertation provides the foundation for This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things from MIT Press.

What is Trolling?

Phillips notes that the central theme of all trolling is lulz, which she defines as amusement at other peoples’ distress. Proactive schadenfreude, I guess. Trolls are perfectly happy to derive their enjoyment from regular users, public figures, and other trolls. All that matters are the lulz.

One of the first widespread instances of trolling took place when a group of trolls invaded the Usenet newsgroup rec.pets.cats, asking increasingly odd questions and suggesting inappropriate solutions to feline health issues. Regardless of your cat’s respiratory issues, you probably won’t need to aerate it with a .357 hollow-point bullet. I never visited the rec.pets.cats group, but discussion of the trolls’ behavior leaked over to the groups I did participate in. Even the collateral damage was significant. Another early example on Usenet, though one that bordered on spam as well, was “Serdar Argic”, an alias for what appeared to have been multiple posters sending out hundreds of lengthy posts per day denying the Armenian genocide from the early 20th century to groups such as soc.culture.history.

Trolling as Rhetoric

As a communications scholar, Phillips takes on trolling as a rhetorical activity, placing it in a broader cultural context as both product and amplifier of certain aspects of society. Specifically, the masculine drive for domination and as a complement to the 24-hour news cycle.

One reason middle school is such a vile experience for many children is the constant barrage of status games, where kids try to find their place in society at the expense of their classmates. Male trolls, who appear to dominate the landscape, continue this type of aggressive behavior online. They base their rhetorical strategies on the work of Arthur Schopenhauer’s book The Art of Controversy, which melds Aristotelian logic and Socratian dialectic with the Dark Side of the Force. The trolls’ goal is to invoke negative emotions from their targets and, upon eliciting insults or harsh language in response to their own provocations, remind their victims that there’s no room for rudeness in civilized argument and go right back to taking arguments out of context, insulting their opponent, and racking up the lulz.

Phillips also takes issue with conservative media, particularly Fox News and its handling of the Birther controversy, which raised the question as to whether President Barack Obama (usually spoken as Barack HUSSEIN Obama) should release his long-form birth certificate and, after it was released, whether it was a legitimate document. Fox News rode that story hard for much of 2008 and 2009 — you can still hear the echoes if you listen closely. Trolls took advantage of the coverage and some images of Obama to create intentionally offensive and racist memes.

That’s not to say trollish behavior is strictly the purview of Fox News and its ilk. When the Tea Party affiliate in Troy, Michigan had early success turning sentiment against a levy intended to fund the town’s library, an advertising agency devised a campaign purported to be from a group named Safeguarding American Families. The ads expressed opposition to the measure and announced the group would hold a book-burning party. The outrage at this fictitious statement turned sentiment in favor of the ballot measure, which ultimately passed.

Phillips also offers an interesting commentary on trolls as trickster characters. The trickster is known for undercutting the foundations of a society’s cultures or mores but not replacing it with anything. Rather than offer a helpful solution for how things could be done better, tricksters start a fire and walk away. When there are no more lulz to be had, the troll’s work is done.

Transitioning to a Publishable Book

Academic writing is often completely impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a specialist in the author’s field of inquiry. My brother wrote his dissertation on a public policy subject I found interesting, but I couldn’t get through more than three pages of the final document. (Sorry, Doug. I know I said I read the whole thing, but my soup spoon kept creeping toward my eyeballs.) Passive voice is used to maintain a semblance of objectivity and distance, specialized language pervades the text, and rewrites continue until the ultimate academic hazing ritual is complete.

Kind of makes me wonder if dissertation committees haven’t been trolling candidates since the 1500s.

Phillips and her editors did a terrific job of excising unneeded jargon from the text, though some usage and conventions they kept leap off the page. The seemingly ubiquitous forward slash appeared in the section on method/ology, but at least there were no indiscretions on the order of the visual pun When the (M)other is a Fat/Her that William Germano mentions in Getting it Published. That said, while phrasings indicating someone is “gendered” as male have entered the general literature, saying someone was “raced” as Caucasian still seems odd to this generally interested reader.

Conclusions

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a terrific introduction to the world of trolling, exploring how trolls put on figurative masks (or literal masks in the case of online anonymity) and generate lulz from those they encounter. As a former competitive debater in high school and college, I’m dismayed by the violence done to my beloved art of rhetorical controversy. Score some lulz for the trolls, I guess. 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.

Written by curtisfrye

April 18, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Lessons Learned from the Wharton MOOCs

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

What did I take away from my four Wharton MOOCs? The courses certainly reinforced that I have strong and weak areas. I’m most effective at managing what I call “semi-formal” systems, where analytical techniques and practical applications overlap. I thought Professor Terwiesch’s operations management course hit that sweet spot nicely—it wasn’t as theoretical as some operations research courses I’d taken and not as practical as on-site management training.

I’ve also thought a bit about the rhetoric of the courses and how their presentation argues for or against on-campus programs, reflect on Wharton as an institution, and my personal growth as a result of my studies.

Do the Wharton MOOCs argue for or against attending the on-campus program?

MOOC critics often raise the concern than providing even part of a curriculum for free reduces the likelihood that students will choose to pay for the on-campus version of the program. I don’t believe this critique holds for the Wharton School or graduate-level programs from institutions such as MIT, Stanford, or the University of Michigan. Anyone who has completed undergraduate training in a field knows who the heavy hitters are at the next level, and Wharton is easily in that group for MBA candidates.

Business careers are built on relationships. Corporate finance, especially, is an unforgiving arena where years of exemplary performance can be undone by a momentary lapse of reason that costs millions of dollars. Sharing knowledge gleaned from one’s successes and failures, not to mention acquiring new jobs after the latter, helps analysts solidify their status within the industry and find new jobs when necessary.

These relationships blossom in business school cohorts. Learners who wonder whether they can handle material at the Wharton MBA level can try the MOOCs on their own and, if reassured, apply to the program. Once at Wharton, earning an MBA becomes a team sport. This approach starts with team-oriented development of marketing programs and continues through self-selected study groups.

I suspect, but might be wrong in stating, that the team-oriented approach of a Wharton education and business analysis conflicts with the sort of independent learner who is attracted to MOOCs. I personally prefer to work alone when I can, both so I can gain full understanding of the material and to avoid the “free rider” problem where one group member avoids their responsibilities but earns a good grade because other team members pick up the slack. (I still remember you from 1992, Mark L. at George Mason University.)

Going it alone through the Wharton gauntlet seems a daunting proposition. Some classes don’t allow it and others are made easier through cooperative study and the relationships built up in those sessions. The sort of individual who might complete a MOOC, or a series of MOOCs, on their own might not be drawn to the program, but someone who examines the lecture videos and assignments as a way of testing the waters might be more likely to apply. The program cost and opportunity cost of lost earnings while at school are considerable, so potential applicants could test their mettle in a low-stakes environment before making their decision.

In the end, I believe that individuals who understand the context of MOOCs as compared to that of on-campus learning will be more likely to apply to (and accept offers from) the Wharton School than to competing programs that don’t make their offerings accessible through MOOCs. The difference is slight, but at over $250,000 in tuition and fees per student, you can afford to take a risk to improve the quality of your applicant pool.

How do the course presentations and material affect Wharton’s message?

MOOCs don’t generate revenue, except in a limited sense for Coursera or edX when they can sell a verified certificate, so free courses are promotional ventures for the participating institutions. As with all marketing, one must have a message so the offerings can be “on message.”

Each of the four Wharton MOOCs (operations management, marketing, accounting, and corporate finance) adopted different presentational styles. The marketing course was the most accessible in that the quizzes and exam asked students to recall material presented in lectures and readings. Operations management required us to apply concepts from the lectures and practice problems to the homework, which required a bit more practical application than the marketing course.

The financial accounting class required significantly more advanced applications of abstract concepts to practical problems, but the instructor enthusiastically communicated what could have been dry material in an entertaining manner. Professor Bushee said he walked us through about 80% of the material he teaches in his on-campus class, so I feel I received very good value for my time.

I’ve left Professor Allen’s course An Introduction to Corporate Finance for last for good reason: his MOOC was closest to Wharton students’ classroom experience. The lecture videos documented actual classroom presentations, but unless we formed our own study groups we forged our way through the practice problems and assignments alone.

I appreciated Professor Allen’s approach because it demanded we overcome some of the challenges facing his on-campus students. In essence, he said: “You want to be a Wharton MBA student? Right. Here it is, then.” The concordance broke down when we were given multiple attempts at each assignment and didn’t have to use calculators for the exam, of course, but we were asked to receive the material as presented.

To me, this difference doesn’t need to be addressed. Teaching styles differ and, because the finance course isn’t part of the fixed core, students can avoid it if desired. The course’s rigorous requirements alert students to the nature of the challenge they face but shouldn’t dissuade serious candidates from considering the program. Do you really want a Wharton MBA who backs away from difficult situations?

How did I benefit from taking these courses?

At the most prosaic level, I discovered (again) that I should ask for help when I need it. Completing many assignments in the accounting and finance classes would have been easier if I’d been willing to turn to the forums for help. Call it a character flaw.

I plan to use the knowledge I gained from these four MOOCs in my own online courses. I’ll adapt some of the analytical techniques from operations management and corporate finance for use in future projects, with the caveat that I’ll only teach what I truly understand and can apply to examples I create independently. The course examples are the instructors’ intellectual property and, though the underlying recipes and algorithms are up for grabs, their illustrations are not.

I’m overjoyed the Wharton School made these courses available, but I’m fully aware that I didn’t receive the equivalent of a Wharton MBA education. The online versions of the classes lacked the rigor of their live counterparts, but I’m now aware of the Wharton School’s offerings and would set my sights on its program if I wanted to pursue an elite MBA degree.