Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

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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.

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

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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

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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.

Chess as a game (among many)

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Chess is often called “the queen of games”, at least in Western culture. The game’s austere appearance, when combined with its tactical and strategic depth, provides an air of challenge and mystery.

In many ways, chess is the prototypical Western game. Strategies and tactics are direct, with little progress to be made unless you directly confront your opponent. Chess is also a perfect information game, meaning there is no element of chance. You might not know your opponent’s next move, but there’s nothing hiding it from you. If you didn’t see what was coming, you can only blame yourself.

Although chess has increased in popularity in Asia, the traditional strategy game of Japan, China, and South Korea is go. Unlike chess, where the goal is to create a position where your opponent’s king is under attack and cannot move to a safe square, go players place their stones in an attempt to surround territory on the board. Chess boards are 8 x 8, with 64 squares, and the pieces stand on the squares. In go, the board has 19 x 19 lines, with 361 intersections, and players may place a stone on any unoccupied intersection (with a few exceptions).

The complexity of go far outstrips that of chess, at least in terms of the computation required to analyze and evaluate a position. Computers have conquered humans at chess…their calculating speed and positional evaluation let them beat even the strongest carbon-based players regularly. The most advanced go programs can only beat top professionals if they are given a substantial head start. That said, the gap is closing.

I said that chess is the prototypical Western game, but it’s mostly thought of as a European (and even more specifically, Russian) game. In America, the game of choice is poker. Poker is a gambling game, with a significant element of chance involved. You can do everything right but still lose if your opponent decides to fight the odds and draws the cards they need. Ironically, the better you play, the more of these “bad beat” stories you’ll have to tell. If you’re always in the lead, the luck of the draw means you will get chased down on occasion.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. But I am.

Do the Russians play chess, the Chinese play go, and the Americans play poker? If you look at our cultures and practices, you’ll see there’s a fair amount of truth to that statement. How well that metaphor translates to actionable intelligence is debatable, but it’s an interesting way to start a conversation.

Smarter than a CIA Agent?

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National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on the Good Judgment Program, which is a trial program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The program’s goal is to find individuals who can forecast whether certain events will occur, such as a major attack on Israeli soil before May 10, 2014. The program’s trial period has 3,000 participants, each of whom makes predictions through a website. The NPR segment featured a 60 year-old pharmacist who is in the top 1% of the group, making her a “superforecaster”.

The question, of course, is whether this participant has any special abilities or insights. Program entrants don’t have access to sensitive data — indeed, the pharmacist says she simply does a Google search to find information about each question and makes her best guess. Just as some lucky individuals can win five, eight, or even 20 coin flips in a row, I’m curious as to how much of the participants’ success (or lack of same) is due to chance. I’m sure the intelligence community is, too. I’d love to see the statistical distribution of forecast success rates to see how it compares to random choices.

Despite the attempts to codify intelligence work in books such as Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, it’s much more of an art than a science. What’s worse, humans are notoriously bad at explaining why we did something. Research has shown that we often have no idea why we perform an action, but feel compelled to provide a justification afterward. That explanation is usually based more on how we perceive ourselves as thinking than it is on the actual process.

If you’re a performer and you do something good, try to remember the context of the scene and how you felt when you got the input that led to your good choice. Recording your performances lets you recapture more of the feeling than simple memory, which fades quickly and can be replaced by what you wished had happened. Then, the next time you’re on stage, try to recreate that feeling so your subconscious can make good choices on your behalf.

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why might that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.

Improv, Party Tricks, and John Cleese

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John Cleese is a comedy genius, distinguishing himself as a member of Monty Python, speaker, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I respect his thoughts on comedy and life, so I listened to his recent interview on the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast with some interest. About halfway through the session, the subject turned to improv:

As a scripted comedian, what do you think about the rise of improv?
The delights of improv have always rather escaped me. I don’t know why it’s considered a major art form. I don’t mean that it’s not interesting or skillful. But over the years all the comedians that I’ve respected—I could also say all the comic writers—are people who put words down on paper and went on working on them until they felt they couldn’t improve them anymore. That seems to me the most important and interesting part of comedy. The other is sort of a party trick, which I respect, but it doesn’t seem to me that it should be regarded at the same level….

Another way, I got a nomination, an Oscar nomination, for the script of A Fish Called Wanda. That had been through 13 drafts, and by the end of it, I really felt that I brought it all together. That’s not a feeling I have with improv. They don’t really build to any kind of dramatic climax or comedic climax.

The “improv as party trick” critique has been around for years for, it must be said, good reason: much of improv is simply cleverness and pattern-built humor that takes advantage of the audience’s programmed responses to those constructs. If improvisers create simple scenes with minimal variance and go for the cheap laughs, we’ll never be better than hack stand-up comedians doing well-worn anatomy jokes on Monday nights.

In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski makes a similar point regarding the emphasis of style over substance:

The difference between a designer and a stylist is analogous to the difference between Glenn Gould performing Bach and Victor Borge playing in the style of Bach. With Gould, we experience Bach’s creation; with Borge, we merely recognize the composer’s style. One is art; the other, however entertaining, is not.

Yes, it’s possible to argue that Cleese and the other members of Monty Python used patterns in their work when writing their sketches (it’s hard not to when you produce that much material), but let’s focus on the meat of the critique: that improvisers don’t work to improve individual pieces and that, as Cleese and Rybczynski argue in separate contexts, a performance can be a clever stylistic pastiche but not (or at least most often not) art.

Improvisers live in a world of first drafts. Unless we’re doing fake-prov, where we pretend to hear the suggestions we want and perform our scripted set, we’re honoring the audience’s suggestions and creating a piece on the spot. Even putting a known character into a new situation, a contemporary version of commedia dell’arte, is constrained by our co-writers in the house. I’ve said before that improv is a very forgiving art form: the audience says “banana”, you say “banana”, people laugh, and the person who gave the suggestion thinks they’re a genius. As with all first drafts, though, some of what we do will be terrible, much of it will be funny, and some of it will be hilarious. We can try to improve the scene as we go along, but we get just the one chance. It’s the nature of the beast.

The lack of a climax is a serious concern, especially for long-form improv. The worst improv scenes noodle around a subject, the performers try to force a laugh by going for the joke, and the moderator or team ends it before the audience wanders off to the bar. Mixed short-form shows, such as ComedySportz, use different types of games to add variety and maintain interest. The moderator, what we call a referee, is responsible for moving the show along and deciding when games should end. A four-minute scene might not get a dramatic climax, but the good ones do. A seven-minute musical comedy needs a payoff that happens in the closing song–it’s expected of the genre. In a real sense the referee’s the editor, finding (or, worst case scenario, manufacturing) an end point for the scene. It’s up to the players to create it.

Long-form shows often take a single suggestion and build a series of interconnected scenes along that theme. Some groups, such as Shakesprov in Portland or Cast on a Hot Tin Roof in Chicago, perform entire plays in the style of a specific playwright (Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, respectively). Rybczynski’s critique that these performances might be entertaining but definitely won’t be artistic fails if the performers dig in with the intention of honoring the author and genre and create a piece worthy of the group’s aspirations. If Borge played Bach in a concert performance, it would be art. Interpreting Suddenly Last Summer as a comedy would be a travesty. Performing All’s Well That Ends Well as Shakespeare wrote it is both.

To sum up, I think Cleese’s argument that improv is a party trick that owes more to cleverness than art is fair, but could just as easily be turned on run-of-the-mill sketch comedy, stand-up, or essayists. Skilled improvisers strive to be more than surface-level funny, honor the intentions of the audience, respect the artists from whom we borrow, and build to a dramatic or comedic climax. But we can always do better.